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 The Bahá'ís Magazine

The world’s great faiths have animated civilizations throughout history. Each affirms the existence of an all-loving God and opens the doors of understanding to the spiritual dimension of life. Each cultivates the love of God and of humanity in the human heart and seeks to bring out the noblest qualities and aspirations of the human being. Each has beckoned humankind to higher forms of civilization.

Over the thousands of years of humanity’s collective infancy and adolescence, the systems of shared belief brought by the world’s great religions have enabled people to unite and create bonds of trust and cooperation at ever-higher levels of social organization―from the family, to the tribe, to the city-state and nation. As the human race moves toward a global civilization, this power of religion to promote cooperation and propel cultural evolution can perhaps be better understood today than ever before. It is an insight that is increasingly being recognized and is affirmed in the work of evolutionary psychologists and cultural anthropologists.

The teachings of the Founders of the world’s religions have inspired breathtaking achievements in literature, architecture, art, and music. They have fostered the promotion of reason, science, and education. Their moral principles have been translated into universal codes of law, regulating and elevating human relationships. These uniquely endowed individuals are referred to as Manifestations of God in the Bahá’í writings, and include (among others) Krishna, Moses, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, the Báb, and Bahá’u’lláh. History provides countless examples of how these Figures have awakened in whole populations capacities to love, to forgive, to create, to dare greatly, to overcome prejudice, to sacrifice for the common good, and to discipline the impulses of humanity’s baser instincts. These achievements can be recognized as the common spiritual heritage of the human race.

Today, humanity faces the limits of a social order inadequate to meet the compelling challenges of a world that has virtually shrunk to the level of a neighborhood. On this small planet, sovereign nations find themselves caught between cooperation and competition. The well-being of humanity and of the environment are too often compromised for national self-interest. Propelled by competing ideologies, divided by various constructs of us versus them, the people of the world are plunged into one crisis after another—brought on by war, terrorism, prejudice, oppression, economic disparity, and environmental upheaval, among other causes.

Bahá’u’lláh—as the latest in the series of divinely inspired moral educators Who have guided humanity from age to age—has proclaimed that humanity is now approaching its long-awaited stage of maturity: unity at the global level of social organization. He provides a vision of the oneness of humanity, a moral framework, and teachings that, founded on the harmony of science and religion, directly address today’s problems. He points the way to the next stage of human social evolution. He offers to the peoples of the world a unifying story consistent with our scientific understanding of reality. He calls on us to recognize our common humanity, to see ourselves as members of one family, to end estrangement and prejudice, and to come together. By doing so, all peoples and every social group can be protagonists in shaping their own future and, ultimately, a just and peaceful global civilization.

 

One humanity, one unfolding faith

We live in a time of rapid, often unsettling change. People today survey the transformations underway in the world with mixed feelings of anticipation and dread, of hope and anxiety. In the societal, economic, and political realms, essential questions about our identity and the nature of the relationships that bind us together are being raised to a degree not seen in decades.

Progress in science and technology represents hope for addressing many of the challenges that are emerging, but such progress is itself a powerful force of disruption, changing the ways we make choices, learn, organize, work, and play, and raising moral questions that have not been encountered before. Some of the most formidable problems facing humanity—those dealing with the human condition and requiring moral and ethical decisions—cannot be solved through science and technology alone, however critical their contributions.

The teachings of Bahá’u’lláh help us understand the transformations underway. At the heart of His message are two core ideas. First is the incontrovertible truth that humanity is one, a truth that embodies the very spirit of the age, for without it, it is impossible to build a truly just and peaceful world. Second is the understanding that humanity’s great faiths have come from one common Source and are expressions of one unfolding religion.

In His writings, Bahá’u’lláh raised a call to the leaders of nations, to religious figures, and to the generality of humankind to give due importance to the place of religion in human advancement. All of the Founders of the world’s great religions, He explained, proclaim the same faith. He described religion as the chief instrument for the establishment of order in the world and of tranquility amongst its peoples and referred to it as a radiant light and an impregnable stronghold for the protection and welfare of the peoples of the world. In another of His Tablets, He states that the purpose of religion is to safeguard the interests and promote the unity of the human race, and to foster the spirit of love and fellowship amongst men. The religion of God and His divine law, He further explains, are the most potent instruments and the surest of all means for the dawning of the light of unity amongst men. The progress of the world, the development of nations, the tranquility of peoples, and the peace of all who dwell on earth are among the principles and ordinances of God. Religion bestoweth upon man the most precious of all gifts, offereth the cup of prosperity, imparteth eternal life, and showereth imperishable benefits upon mankind.

 

The decline of religion

Bahá’u’lláh was also deeply concerned about the corruption and abuse of religion that had come to characterize human societies around the planet. He warned of the inevitable decline of religion’s influence in the spheres of decision making and on the human heart. This decline, He explained, sets in when the noble and pure teachings of the moral luminaries who founded the world’s great religions are corrupted by selfish human ideas, superstition, and the worldly quest for power. Should the lamp of religion be obscured, explained Bahá’u’lláh, chaos and confusion will ensue, and the lights of fairness and justice, of tranquility and peace cease to shine.

From the perspective of the Bahá’í teachings, the abuses carried out in the name of religion and the various forms of prejudice, superstition, dogma, exclusivity, and irrationality that have become entrenched in religious thought and practice prevent religion from bringing to bear the healing influence and society-building power it possesses.

Beyond these manifestations of the corruption of religion are the acts of terror and violence heinously carried out in, of all things, the name of God. Such acts have left a grotesque scar on the consciousness of humanity and distorted the concept of religion in the minds of countless people, turning many away from it altogether.

The spiritual and moral void resulting from the decline of religion has not only given rise to virulent forms of religious fanaticism, but has also allowed for a materialistic conception of life to become the world’s dominant paradigm.

Religion’s place as an authority and a guiding light both in the public sphere and in the private lives of individuals has undergone a profound decline in the last century. A compelling assumption has become consolidated: as societies become more civilized, religion’s role in humanity’s collective affairs diminishes and is relegated to the private life of the individual. Ultimately, some have speculated that religion will disappear altogether.

Yet this assumption is not holding up in the light of recent developments. In these first decades of the 21st century, religion has experienced a resurgence as a social force of global importance. In a rapidly changing world, a reawakening of humanity’s longing for meaning and for spiritual connection is finding expression in various forms: in the efforts of established faiths to meet the needs of rising generations by reshaping doctrines and practices to adapt to contemporary life; in interfaith activities that seek to foster dialogue between religious groups; in a myriad of spiritual movements, often focused on individual fulfillment and personal development; but also in the rise of fundamentalism and radical expressions of religious practice, which have tragically exploited the growing discontent among segments of humanity, especially youth.

Concurrently, national and international governing institutions are not only recognizing religion’s enduring presence in society but are increasingly seeing the value of its participation in efforts to address humanity’s most vexing problems. This realization has led to increased efforts to engage religious leaders and communities in decision making and in the carrying out of various plans and programs for social betterment.

Each of these expressions, however, falls far short of acknowledging the importance of a social force that has time and again demonstrated its power to inspire the building of vibrant civilizations. If religion is to exert its vital influence in this period of profound, often tumultuous change, it will need to be understood anew. Humanity will have to shed harmful conceptions and practices that masquerade as religion. The question is how to understand religion in the modern world and allow for its constructive powers to be released for the betterment of all.

 

Religion renewed

The great religious systems that have guided humanity over thousands of years can be regarded in essence as one unfolding religion that has been renewed from age to age, evolving as humanity has moved from one stage of collective development to another. Religion can thus be seen as a system of knowledge and practice that has, together with science, propelled the advancement of civilization throughout history.

Religion today cannot be exactly what it was in a previous era. Much of what is regarded as religion in the contemporary world must, Bahá’ís believe, be re-examined in light of the fundamental truths Bahá’u’lláh has posited: the oneness of God, the oneness of religion, and the oneness of the human family.

Bahá’u’lláh set an uncompromising standard: if religion becomes a source of separation, estrangement, or disagreement—much less violence and terror—it is best to do without it. The test of true religion is its fruits. Religion should demonstrably uplift humanity, create unity, forge good character, promote the search for truth, liberate human conscience, advance social justice, and promote the betterment of the world. True religion provides the moral foundations to harmonize relationships among individuals, communities, and institutions across diverse and complex social settings. It fosters an upright character and instills forbearance, compassion, forgiveness, magnanimity, and high-mindedness. It prohibits harm to others and invites souls to the plane of sacrifice, that they may give of themselves for the good of others. It imparts a world-embracing vision and cleanses the heart from self-centeredness and prejudice. It inspires souls to endeavor for material and spiritual betterment for all, to see their own happiness in that of others, to advance learning and science, to be an instrument of true joy, and to revive the body of humankind.

True religion is in harmony with science. When understood as complementary, science and religion provide people with powerful means to gain new and wondrous insights into reality and to shape the world around them, and each system benefits from an appropriate degree of influence from the other. Science, when devoid of the perspective of religion, can become vulnerable to dogmatic materialism. Religion, when devoid of science, falls prey to superstition and blind imitation of the past. The Bahá’í teachings state:

Put all your beliefs into harmony with science; there can be no opposition, for truth is one. When religion, shorn of its superstitions, traditions, and unintelligent dogmas, shows its conformity with science, then will there be a great unifying, cleansing force in the world which will sweep before it all wars, disagreements, discords and struggles—and then will mankind be united in the power of the Love of God.

True religion transforms the human heart and contributes to the transformation of society. It provides insights about humanity’s true nature and the principles upon which civilization can advance. At this critical juncture in human history, the foundational spiritual principle of our time is the oneness of humankind. This simple statement represents a profound truth that, once accepted, invalidates all past notions of the superiority of any race, sex, or nationality. It is more than a mere call to mutual respect and feelings of goodwill between the diverse peoples of the world, important as these are. Carried to its logical conclusion, it implies an organic change in the very structure of society and in the relationships that sustain it.

 

The experience of the Bahá’í community

Inspired by the principle of the oneness of humankind, Bahá’ís believe that the advancement of a materially and spiritually coherent world civilization will require the contributions of countless high-minded individuals, groups, and organizations, for generations to come. The efforts of the Bahá’í community to contribute to this movement are finding expression today in localities all around the world and are open to all.

At the heart of Bahá’í endeavors is a long-term process of community building that seeks to develop patterns of life and social structures founded on the oneness of humanity. One component of these efforts is an educational process that has developed organically in rural and urban settings around the world. Spaces are created for children, youth, and adults to explore spiritual concepts and gain capacity to apply them to their own social environments. Every soul is invited to contribute regardless of race, gender, or creed. As thousands upon thousands participate, they draw insights from both science and the world’s spiritual heritage and contribute to the development of new knowledge. Over time, capacities for service are being cultivated in diverse settings around the world and are giving rise to individual initiatives and increasingly complex collective action for the betterment of society. Transformation of the individual and transformation of the community unfold simultaneously.

Beyond efforts to learn about community building at the grass roots, Bahá’ís engage in various forms of social action, through which they strive to apply spiritual principles in efforts to further material progress in diverse settings. Bahá’í institutions and agencies, as well as individuals and organizations, also participate in the prevalent discourses of their societies in diverse spaces, from academic and professional settings, to national and international forums, all with the aim of contributing to the advancement of society.

As they carry out this work, Bahá’ís are conscious that to uphold high ideals is not the same as to embody them. The Bahá’í community recognizes that many challenges lie ahead as it works shoulder to shoulder with others for unity and justice. It is committed to the long-term process of learning through action that this task entails, with the conviction that religion has a vital role to play in society and a unique power to release the potential of individuals, communities, and institutions.

Although the 20th century witnessed the increasing recognition of principles such as universal human rights, democratic ideals, the equality of human beings, social justice, the peaceful resolution of conflict, and condemnation of the barbarism of war, it was nevertheless one of the bloodiest centuries in all human history. Such a development was unpredicted by classical sociological theorists writing in the second half of the 19th century, who either did not devote much attention to the question of war and peace or were optimistic about the prospects for peace in the 20th century. While war and peace were central questions in the social theories of both Auguste Comte (1798–1857),1Auguste Comte, Introduction to Positive Philosophy (Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1970). the founder of positivism, and Herbert Spencer (1820–1903),2Herbert Spencer, Evolution of Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967). the founder of evolutionary and synthetic philosophy, for example, both conceived of social change as an evolutionary movement towards progress and characterized the emerging modern society as essentially peaceful—one in which military conquest aimed at the acquisition of land would be replaced with economic and industrial competition.3This is part of Comte’s law of three stages. According to this idea, all societies evolve by going through religious/theological, metaphysical/philosophical, and scientific/positive stages. Spencer defined a military society as one in which the social function of regulation is dominant, while in an industrial society the economic function predominates. Other classical theorists generally assumed that war among nations was a thing of the past.4Contrary to the popular perception, Durkheim, Marx, and Weber rarely engaged in a direct discussion of war or peace. Only after the onset of the World War I did Durkheim, Simmel, and Mead side with their own countries and discuss the issue. Such optimism was partly rooted in the relative security of Europe during the 19th century where, between the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 and the onset of World War I in 1914 there was a relatively long stage of peace, interrupted mainly by the German-French war of 1870. However, this security was a mere illusion, accompanied as it was by increasing militarism and nationalism in Europe and the vast scale of war and genocide perpetrated by European powers in their pursuit of colonial conquest in Africa and other parts of the world.

Standing in contrast to the misplaced optimism of the classical 19th century sociologists is the spiritual figure of Bahá’u’lláh, who was born in 1817 in Persia and initiated a transformative global religion centered on the urgency and necessity of peace making. He perceived that both the institutional structures of the 19th century and their cultural orientation promoted various forms of violence, including international wars. The significance of Bahá’u’lláh and His insights as they apply to peace movements and peace studies is evident through an examination of His worldview and of the manner in which His writings reconstruct foundational concepts such as mysticism, religion, and social order—emphasizing the replacement of the sword with the word.


A facsimile of an original writing of Bahá’u’lláh, along with His pen and pen case

Bahá’u’lláh and the Removal of the Sword

Mírzá Ḥusayn ‘Alíy-i-Núrí, who took the title Bahá’u’lláh (the Glory of God), was born in Tehran, Iran, in 1817. As a young man, Bahá’u’lláh accepted the claim of the young merchant from Shiraz known as the Báb (the Gate) to be the Promised One of Shí‘ih Islam. Both the clerics and state authorities in Iran declared the Báb’s ideas heretical and dangerous and unleashed a systematic campaign of genocide directed at His followers, the Bábís. The Báb Himself was executed in 1850—only six years after the announcement of His mission. While the writings of the Báb provided fresh and innovative interpretations of religious ideas, they pointed to the imminent appearance of a new Manifestation (prophet or messenger) of God and defined His entire revelation as a preparation for the coming of that great spiritual educator. During a massacre of the Bábís in 1852, Bahá’u’lláh was imprisoned in a dungeon in Tehran, where He received an epoch-making experience of revelation and perceived Himself to be the Promised One of all religions, including the Bábí Faith. After four months of imprisonment, and the confiscation of all His property, He was exiled to the Ottoman Empire, first to Baghdad, then in 1863 to Constantinople (Istanbul), and from there to Adrianople (Edirne), and finally, in 1868, to the fortress city of ‘Akká in the Holy Land, where He died in 1892.

Although Bahá’u’lláh founded a new religion, the meaning, and particularly the end purpose, of religion is transformed in His writings. As traditionally conceived, religion is often focused on a set of theological doctrines about God, prophets, the next world, and the Day of judgment. While these concepts are discussed and elucidated in His writings, Bahá’u’lláh emphasizes that He has come to renew and revitalize humanity, to reconstruct the world, and to bring peace. In His final work, the Book of the Covenant, He describes the purpose of His life, sufferings, revelation and writings in this way:

The aim of this Wronged One in sustaining woes and tribulations, in revealing the Holy Verses and in demonstrating proofs hath been naught but to quench the flame of hate and enmity, that the horizon of the hearts of men may be illumined with the light of concord and attain real peace and tranquillity.5Bahá’u’lláh, Kitáb-i-‘Ahd (Book of the Covenant), in Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas (Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 1978), 219.

In other words, affirming spiritual principles is inseparable from transforming the social order and from replacing hatred and violence with love and universal peace. From a Bahá’í point of view, then, religion must be the cause of unity and concord among human beings, and if it becomes a cause of enmity and violence, it is better not to have religion.6See for example, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks. Making peace is the essence of Bahá’u’lláh’s normative orientation and worldview. It is ironic, therefore, that both the King of Iran and the Ottoman Sultan rose together against Bahá’u’lláh to silence His voice by intriguing to exile Him to the city of ‘Akká; however, their oppressive decision in the end only exemplified the Hegelian concept of the cunning of Reason,7Georg W. F. Hegel, Reason in History (New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1953), 25–56. in which Reason realizes its plan through the unintended consequences of actions by individuals whose intent is their own selfish desires. As Bahá’u’lláh has frequently stated, His response to this final exile ordered by these two kings was to publicly announce His message to the rulers of the world. Upon arrival in ‘Akká, He wrote messages to world leaders, including those of Germany, England, Russia, Iran, and France, as well as to the Pope, explicitly declaring His cause and calling them all to unite and bring about world peace. The second irony is that it was through this exile that He was brought to the Holy Land, where the coming of final peace in the world is prophesied to take place, when the wolf and lamb will feed together and swords will be beaten into plowshares.8Isaiah 11:6 and 2:4.

In order to better understand the vital connection between Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation and His concern with peace, let us examine that experience of revelation in the Tehran dungeon in 1852 which marks the birth of the Bahá’í Faith. Bahá’u’lláh describes this experience:

One night, in a dream, these exalted words were heard on every side: Verily, We shall render Thee victorious by Thyself and by Thy Pen. Grieve Thou not for that which hath befallen Thee, neither be Thou afraid, for Thou art in safety. Erelong will God raise up the treasures of the earth—men who will aid Thee through Thyself and through Thy Name, wherewith God hath revived the hearts of such as have recognized Him.9Bahá’u’lláh, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, accessed 7 June 2018, http://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/bahaullah/epistle-son-wolf/#f=f2-35

This brief statement epitomizes many of the central teachings of the Bahá’í Faith, one of the most important of which is the replacement of the sword with the word. The victory of the Cause of Bahá’u’lláh will take place through the person and character of Bahá’u’lláh and by means of His pen: words and their embodiment in deeds are the only means through which the message of Bahá’u’lláh can be promoted. Thus, the Islamic concept of jihad is abrogated, as is any concept of the religion and its propagation that includes violence, discrimination, coercion, avoidance, and hatred of others. Bahá’u’lláh continually presents the elimination of religious fanaticism, hatred, and violence as one of the main goals of His revelation.

This first experience of revelation defines the substantive message of the new religion in terms of the method of its promotion: A peaceful and dialogical method is the very essence of the new concept of peace and justice. Unlike doctrines that justify forms of violence and oppression as acceptable or even necessary methods of establishing peace and justice in the world, Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings categorically affirm the unity of substance and method in peace making: peace is realized through the way we live, the words we use, and the means we employ to bring about justice, unity, and peace. For Bahá’u’lláh, the time has come to reject the law of the jungle not only in our normative pronouncements about humanity but also in the methods we pursue in order to realize lofty ideals.10See Saiedi, From Oppression to Empowerment,The Journal of Bahá’í Studies 26:1–2 (Spring/Summer 2016), 28–30.

The word, or the pen, is central in Bahá’í philosophy. In the experience of revelation, there is a conversation between God and Bahá’u’lláh, which is an exact repetition of the conversation between God and Moses. According to the Qur’án, God gives two proofs to Moses: His staff and His shining hand. When Moses places His staff on the ground, it becomes a mighty snake, causing Him to become afraid and stand back. God tells Him: Be Thou not afraid, for Thou art in safety.11Qur’an 28:31. These same words are now uttered by God to Bahá’u’lláh,12While in translation they may appear to be slightly different, they are identical in the original Arabic. implying that the staff of Moses has been replaced by the pen of Bahá’u’lláh as His mighty proof of truth. Likewise, instead of the hand of Moses, the entire being and character of Bahá’u’lláh have become His new evidence. The immediate implication is the unity of Bahá’u’lláh and Moses. This reflects one of Bahá’u’lláh’s central teachings: that all the Manifestations of God are one and that They convey the same fundamental spiritual truth, leading to the principle of the harmony and unity of all religions.

This replacement of the staff with the pen further emphasizes the fact that His cause is rendered victorious through the effect of His words, rather than the performance of supernatural phenomena, or miracles; His message and His teachings constitute the supreme evidence of His truth. This replacement of physical miracles with the miracle of the spirit, namely the Word, is one of the central distinguishing features of Bahá’u’lláh’s worldview. But the most direct expression of the centrality of the pen in Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation is the new definition and conception of the human being offered in this first experience of revelation. The assertion that the cause of Bahá’u’lláh can only be rendered victorious by the pen implies that each soul possesses the capacity to independently recognize spiritual truth. Bahá’u’lláh frequently points out that all humans are created by God as mirrors of divine attributes, and because all individuals are responsible for realizing this divine gift, all the writings of Bahá’u’lláh, in one way or another, call for spiritual autonomy; no one should blindly follow or imitate any other in spiritual, political, and ethical issues. That is why priesthood has been eliminated in the Bahá’í religion and all Bahá’ís are equally and directly responsible before God. The implication of this spiritual autonomy is the utilization of democratic forms of decision making, as characterizes the Bahá’í administrative institutions. However, this form of democracy transcends the materialistic and partisan definition of the prevalent forms in society. Rather, it is a democracy of consultation based on a spiritual definition of reality that views all humans as noble beings endowed with rights.

One final implication of this first experience of revelation needs to be emphasized. According to Bahá’u’lláh’s description, the message of God was brought to Him by a Maid of Heaven. While God, the unknowable, is neither male nor female, the revelation of God through this Word, the supreme sacred reality in the created world, is presented as a feminine reality. Bahá’u’lláh received His revelation not from a tree, a bird, or a male angel, but rather from a female angel who metaphorically symbolizes the inner mystical truth of all the prophets of God. Therefore, the very inception of the Bahá’í revelation is characterized by a fundamental re-examination of the station of women. They are no longer the embodiments and symbols of selfish desires, irrationality, corruption, and worldly attraction; instead, they represent the supreme reflection of God in this world. At the same time, the removal of the sword in this first experience of revelation is a revolutionary critique of patriarchal culture and worldview. These two points are inseparable. The realization of a culture of peace requires the equality and unity of men and women, as violence and patriarchy are inseparable.

 


Revelation writing by one of Bahá’u’lláh’s secretaries

From Word Order to World Order

The Writings of Bahá’u’lláh cover a period of forty years, from His imprisonment in the Tehran dungeon in 1852 to His passing in 1892. In the following passage, He describes the purpose and the stages of His writings:

Behold and observe! This is the finger of might by which the heaven of vain imaginings was indeed cleft asunder. Incline thine ear and Hear! This is the call of My Pen which was raised among mystics, then divines, and then kings and rulers.13Bahá’u’lláh, Ishráqát (Tehran: Mu’assisiy-i-Millíy-i-Matbú‘át-i-Amrí, n.d.), 260. Provisional translation.

In the first part of this statement, Bahá’u’lláh presents the contrasting images of the finger of might and the heaven of vain imaginings. While the idea of cleaving the moon is attributed to the prophet Muhammad, now Bahá’u’lláh’s pen is rending not only the moon but the entire heaven, which represents the illusions, idle fancies, superstitions, and misconceptions that have erected walls of estrangement between human beings, have enslaved them, and have reduced their culture to the level of the animal. Bahá’u’lláh emphasizes that violence, oppression, and hatred are embodiments of vain imaginings and illusions constructed by human beings. Now, through his pen, He has come to tear away these veils, extinguish the fire of enmity and hatred, and bring people together.

In the second part of this statement, Bahá’u’lláh identifies the stages and order of His words, which were first addressed to mystics, then to divines, and finally to the kings and rulers of the world. His first writings, those written between 1852 and 1859, including the time He lived in Iraq, primarily address mystical concepts and categories.14See The Call of the Divine Beloved: Selected Mystical Works of Bahá’u’lláh (Haifa, Bahá’í World Centre, 2018), https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/bahaullah/call-divine-beloved/. Those of the second stage, encompassing His writings between 1859 and 1867, address the religious leaders and their interpretation of religion. Finally His writings from 1868 on, directed both to the generality of humankind and to the kings and rulers of the world, address social and political questions. Each stage emphasizes a certain principle of Bahá’u’lláh’s worldview, following the sequence of His spiritual logic. The principles corresponding to these stages are as follows: a spiritual interpretation of reality, historical consciousness—even the historicity of the words of God—and global consciousness. The worldview of Bahá’u’lláh is defined by the mutual interdependence of these three principles.

Each stage of the writings of Bahá’u’lláh aims to reinterpret and reconstruct traditional ideas and worldviews. Therefore, the dynamics of His writings can be described by His reconstruction of mysticism, religion, and the social order.

1. Reconstruction of Mysticism

In His earlier writings, Bahá’u’lláh directly engages with Persian and Islamic forms of mysticism; through these and His later writings, He reconstructs mysticism so as to realize its full potential. To understand this point, it is useful to refer to the twin concepts of the arc of descent (qaws-i-nuzúl) and arc of ascent (qaws-i-ṣu‘úd) which comprise the spiritual or mystical journey. The arc of descent is normally perceived as the descent of reality from God—the dynamics of material creation, culminating in the emergence of human life. As a consequence, however, human beings are estranged from their origin and their own truth, which is the unity of God. This yearning for reunion, in turn, initiates the arc of ascent, the mystical journey of the soul’s return to its source. The arc of ascent, as seen, for example, in the Seven Valleys, transcends the realm of conflict and plurality to discover the underlying truth of all reality, namely God.15 The stages of spiritual ascent are frequently referred to as seven valleys or seven cities. In ‘Aṭṭár’s Conference of the Birds these stages are: search/quest, love, knowledge, contentment/independence, unity, wonderment/bewilderment, and annihilation in God. Baha’u’llah’s Seven Valleys employs these stages, but He makes a slight change in the order, bringing contentment/independence after unity. See The Call of the Divine Beloved. With the annihilation of self that is found in this unity, one is assumed to have reached the zenith of the arc of ascent.

Although in traditional views of mystical consciousness, the zenith of the arc of ascent is the highest and end point of the spiritual journey, in reality this is just the beginning of a new stage. But in traditional consciousness all humans become sacred and equal only in God. In other words, only when living human beings, made of flesh and blood, are divested of their various determinations and turned into an abstraction do they become noble and sacred. For example, only when women are no longer women—that is, when their concrete determinations are negated and annulled in God—do they become equal to men. But concrete, living women remain inferior to men in rights, spiritual station, and rank. Thus despite the claim to see God in everything, the presence of social inequalities including slavery, patriarchy, religious discrimination, political despotism, and caste-like distinctions could go unchallenged.

For that reason, we need a further arc of descent to bring the fundamental insight and achievement of mystic oneness down to earth. In other words, after tracing the arc of ascent and attaining the consciousness of unity, one must be able to descend once again into the world of concrete plurality and time and maintain the consciousness of unity without being imprisoned in the consciousness of conflict and estrangement. In this way, the wayfarer is transformed into a new being who sees the unity of all in the concrete diversity of the world; in this arc of descent, one comes to see in all people their truth, or their divine attributes. The result of this consciousness is the end of the logic of separation, discrimination, prejudice, and hatred, and the beginning of the culture of the oneness of the human race, encompassing equal rights of all humans, the equality of men and women, religious tolerance and unity, and universal love for all people. Thus, according to Bahá’u’lláh, the real task of the mystic is not just the inward transformation of the annihilation of self in God but to transform the world so that the mystical truth of all human beings is manifested in the relations, structures, and institutions of social order. Since all beings become reflections of God, God and his unity are recognized within the diversity of moments and beings, resulting in the worldview of unity in diversity.

2. Reconstruction of Religion

The reconstruction of religion is, in fact, the first stage of the new arc of descent. In this first step, one descends from the unity of God and eternity to the diversity of the prophets and Manifestations of God. Here, history reveals a unity in diversity that reflects in its dynamics the unity of God: the Bahá’í view finds all the Manifestations of God to be one and the same, because they are reflections of divine unity and divine attributes. Since God is defined in the Torah, Gospel, and Qur’án as being the First and the Last, all the Manifestations are also the first and the last.16Examples are Isaiah 44:6 and 48:12, Revelation 1:8 and 22:13, and Qur’án 57:2. They are also the return of each other. Bahá’u’lláh views the realm of religion as the reflection of both diversity (of historical progress) and unity (of all the prophets). He says:

It is clear and evident to thee that all the Prophets are the Temples of the Cause of God, Who have appeared clothed in divers attire. If thou wilt observe with discriminating eyes, thou wilt behold Them all abiding in the same tabernacle, soaring in the same heaven, seated upon the same throne, uttering the same speech, and proclaiming the same Faith. Such is the unity of those Essences of Being, those Luminaries of infinite and immeasurable splendor! Wherefore, should one of these Manifestations of Holiness proclaim saying: I am the return of all the Prophets, He, verily, speaketh the truth. In like manner, in every subsequent Revelation, the return of the former Revelation is a fact, the truth of which is firmly established.17Bahá’u’lláh, The Kitáb-i-Iqán: The Book of Certitude (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1983), 153–54.

In other words, the Word of God, which is the essence of all religions, is a living and dynamic reality. It is one Word that, at different historical moments, appears in new forms. The different prophets are like the same sun that appears at different times at a different place on the horizon. While the traditional approach to religion usually reduces the identity of the sun to its historically specific horizon and therefore emphasizes opposition and hostility among various religions, Bahá’u’lláh identifies the truth of all religions as one and calls for the unity of religions. In Bahá’u’lláh’s view, a major cause of violence, war, and oppression in the world is religious fanaticism created by the vain imaginings of religious leaders. He warned: Religious fanaticism and hatred are a world-devouring fire whose violence none can quench. The Hand of Divine power can, alone, deliver mankind from this desolating affliction.18Bahá’u’lláh, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, accessed 8 June 2018, http://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/bahaullah/epistle-son-wolf/#f=f2-19. The establishment of peace, then, requires overcoming such religious hatred and discord.

3. Reconstruction of the World

The second step of the new arc of descent relates to the wayfarer’s descent into the world. Here, the consciousness of unity necessarily leads to the principle of the oneness of humankind as well as to universal peace. In traditional religious consciousness, the relationship between the created and the Creator is repeated in all forms of social relations. Thus, the relation between men and women, kings and subjects, free persons and slaves, believers and non-believers, and even clerics and laymen repeat the relation between God and human beings. In this way, the illusion is created that domination, discrimination, violence, and opposition are legitimized by religion. In contrast, Bahá’u’lláh explains that the relation that truly obtains is that because all are created by God and are servants of God, all are equal. Instead of repeating in the realm of social order the relation of God to the created world, the servitude of all before God denotes the equality and nobility of all human beings. The task of true mysticism therefore is not to escape from the world, but rather to transform it so that it becomes a mirror of the republic of spirit or the kingdom of God. Bahá’u’lláh’s global consciousness and His concept of peace are embodiments of this reinterpretation of the world and social order, as reflected in the following statement in which He redefines what it is to be human:

That one indeed is a man who, today, dedicateth himself to the service of the entire human race. The Great Being saith: Blessed and happy is he that ariseth to promote the best interests of the peoples and kindreds of the earth. In another passage He hath proclaimed: It is not for him to pride himself who loveth his own country, but rather for him who loveth the whole world. The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.19Bahá’u’lláh, Lawḥ-i-Maqṣúd (Tablet of Maqṣúd), Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, 167.

The purpose of Bahá’u’lláh’s reinterpretation of mysticism, religion, and social order is to bring about a culture of unity in diversity and to institutionalize universal peace in the world. To discuss His specific concept of peace, it is necessary first to review the existing theories of peace in the social sciences and then identify the structure of Bahá’u’lláh’s vision.

 

Main Theories of Peace

With the outbreak of World War I, most social theorists took the side of their own country in the conflict and, in some cases, glorified war. Georg Simmel identifies war as an absolute situation in which ordinary, selfish preoccupations of individuals living in an impersonal economy are placed in an ultimate life-and-death situation. Thus, he concludes, war liberates the moral impulse from the boredom of routine life and makes individuals willing to sacrifice their lives for the good of society.20Georg Simmel, Der Krieg und die Geistigen Entscheidungen (Munich: Duncker and Humblot, 1917). On the other side, Durkheim and Mead both take strong positions against Germany. Discussing Treitschke’s worship of war and German superiority, Durkheim writes of a German mentality which led to the militaristic politics of that country.21Emile Durkheim, L’ Allemagne au-dessus de Tout: La Mentalité Allemande et la Guerre (Paris: Colin, 1915). Emile Durkheim, L’ Allemagne au-dessus de Tout: La Mentalité Allemande et la Guerre (Paris: Colin, 1915). A similar analysis is found in the writings of Mead, who contrasts German militaristic politics with Allied liberal constitutions. In a distorted and inaccurate presentation of Kant’s distinction between the realm of appearances and the things in themselves, Mead argues that in Kantian theory, the substantive determination of practical life is left in the hands of military elites. Such a state could by definition only rest upon force. Militarism became the necessary form of its life.22G. H. Mead, Immanuel Kant on Peace and Democracy in Self, War & Society: George Herbert Mead’s Macrosociology. Ed. Mary Jo Deegan (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2008), 159–74. However, modern social scientific literature in general and peace studies in particular offer various theories in regard to war and peace, four of which are particularly significant: realism, democratic peace theory, Marxist theory, and social constructivism and cultural theory.

1. Realism

Realism, the dominant theory in the field of international relations, is rooted in a Machiavellian and Hobbesian conception of human beings. According to this model, states are the main actors in international relations. However, the main determinant of a state’s decision to engage in war or peace is the international political and military structure. This structure, however, is none other than international anarchy; the Hobbesian state of nature is the dominant reality at the level of international relations, since there is no binding global law or authority in the world. In this situation, states are left in a situation necessitating self-help, with each regarding all others as potential or actual threats to its security. Thus, arms races and militarism are rational strategies for safeguarding national security. States must act in rational and pragmatic ways and must not be bound by either internal politics or moral principles in determining their policies. In this situation, war is a normal result of the structure of international relations. According to some advocates of this theory, the existence of nuclear weapons and a bi-polar military structure (as seen in the Cold War) are, paradoxically, conducive to peace.23See, for example, John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: Norton, 2001).

2. Democratic Peace Theory

One of the most well-known theories in relation to war and peace is a liberal theory according to which democracies rarely—if ever—engage in war with each other. This doctrine was first advanced in 1875 by Immanuel Kant in his historic work Perpetual Peace.24Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace (New York: Columbia University Press, 1939). In contrast to realism, democratic peace theory sees the root cause of war or peace in the internal political structure of societies. Empirical tests have confirmed the existence of a significant positive correlation between democracy and peace,25See Bruce Russet and John R. Oneal, Triangulating Peace: Democracy, Interdependence, and the International Organizations (New York: W. W. Norton, 2001). with two sets of explanations offered. Institutional explanations emphasize the existence of systematic restraining forces in democracies. The vote of the people matters in democracies, and therefore war is less likely to occur because it is the people rather than the rulers who will pay the ultimate price of war. Cultural explanations argue that democracies respect other democracies and are therefore more willing to engage in the peaceful resolution of conflicts. The internal habit of the democratic resolution of conflicts is said to be extended to the realm of foreign relations.26Among classical social theorists there is considerable sympathy for this theory. Durkheim, Mead, and Veblen all identified the cause of World War I as the undemocratic culture and politics of Germany and Japan. Similarly, Spencer finds political democracy compatible with peace.

3. Marxist Theory

Marxist theory can be discussed in terms of three issues: the relation of capitalism to war or peace, the role of violence in transition from capitalism to communism, and the impact of colonialism on the development of colonized societies. The dominant Marxist views on these issues are usually at odds with Marx’s own positions.

Marx did not address the issue of war and peace extensively. He shared the 19th century’s optimism about the outdated character of interstate wars. In fact, he mostly believed that capitalism benefits from peace and considered Napoleon’s wars a product of that ruler’s obsession with fame and glory.27Karl Marx, The Holy Family (Moscow: Foreign Language Pub. House, 1956), Ch. 6. As Mann argues, Marx saw capitalism as a transnational system and therefore regarded it as a cause of peace rather than war.28Michael Mann, War and Social Theory: Into Battle with Classes, Nations and States, in The Sociology of War and Peace, ed. Colin Creighton and Martin Shaw (Dobbs Ferry: Sheridan House, 1987). He believed that violence is mostly necessary for revolution but affirmed the possibility of peaceful transition to socialism in the most developed capitalist societies. Furthermore, Marx saw the colonization of non-European societies as mostly beneficial for the development of non-European stagnant societies, which in turn would lead to socialist revolutions. In the midst of World War I, Lenin (1870–1924) radically changed the Marxist theory of war and peace, arguing that imperialism or the competition for colonial conquest necessarily causes wars among Western capitalist states. According to Lenin, these wars would destroy capitalism and lead to the triumph of socialism. In his view, violence was the only possible way of attaining socialism.29Vladimir I. Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (New York: International Publishers, 1939).

Marxist theory has inspired many sociological theories of war and peace, from C. Wright Mills’s thesis of the military-industrial complex to Wallerstein’s theory of the world capitalist system.30See C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956) and Immanuel M. Wallerstein, The Politics of the World-Economy: The States, the Movements, and the Civilizations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984). However, in general, most socialist theories see the root cause of war in the extremes of social inequality. Socialism, therefore, is perceived to be the economic order conducive to peace.

4. Social Constructivism and Cultural Theory

A sociological perspective that has influenced the field of international relations is the theory of social constructivism, which systematically criticizes the realist perspective. Emphasizing the symbolic and interpretive character of social relations and practices, this model, which is influenced by symbolic interactionism, states that war is a product of our socially constructed interpretations of ourselves and others. Mead’s emphasis on the social and interactive construction of self is compatible with a host of philosophical and sociological theories that have emphasized the significance of language in defining human reality. Unlike utilitarian and rationalist theories that perceive humans as selfish and competitive, the linguistic turn emphasizes the social and cooperative nature of human beings. Since being with others is the very constitutive element of human consciousness and self, the realization of peace requires a new social interpretive construction of reality.31See, for example, Alexander Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

Cultural theories emphasize the causal significance of the culture of violence or peace as the main determinant of war or peace. John Mueller argues that prior to the 20th century, war was perceived as a natural, moral, and rational phenomenon.32John E. Mueller, Retreat from Doomsday: The Obsolescence of Major War (New York: Basic Book, 1989). However, through the First and Second World Wars, this culture changed. According to Mueller, the Western world is moving increasingly in this direction, with the non-Western world lagging behind, although the future is bright since we are moving towards a culture of peace.

 

Bahá’u’lláh’s Approach to Peace

After World War II and the rise of studies focusing on peace as a scholarly object of analysis, authors such as Johan Galtung distinguished between negative and positive definitions of peace, arguing that negative peace is both unstable and illusory, while positive peace is true peace.33Johan Galtung, Peace by Peaceful Means (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1996). This preference for the positive definition provided the vision of a different theory of peace. According to the negative definition, war is a positive and objective reality, while peace simply refers to the absence of war and conflict. The positive definition of peace, on the other hand, views peace as an objective state of social reality defined by a form of reciprocal and harmonious relations that fosters mutual development and communication among individuals and groups. In this sense, war and violence indicate the absence of positive peace. Thus, even when there is no direct coercion and armed conflict, a state of war and aggression may still exist.34Concepts like structural, symbolic, and cultural violence are a few expressions of this new conception of the positive definition of peace.

It is interesting to note that both Bahá’u’lláh and His successor ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (1844–1921) systematically and consistently advocate a unique positive definition of peace. Even the word that Bahá’u’lláh uses about the purpose of His revelation (iṣláh) means both reform or reconstruction and peace making. In many of his writings He calls for ‘imár (development) and iṣláh (peace making/reform/reconstruction) of the world.35Shoghi Effendi has translated isláh as security and peace, betterment, ennoblement, reconstruction, and improvement. Similarly , he has translated ‘imár as reconstruction, revival, and advancement. Thus, for Bahá’u’lláh, the realization of peace involves simultaneously a reform, reconstruction, and development of the institutions and structures of the world; mere desire is not a sufficient condition for the realization of a true and lasting peace, which requires a fundamental transformation in all aspects of human existence. While none of the existing theories provides an adequate path towards peace, each pointing only to aspects of the complex question of war and peace, Bahá’u’lláh’s multi-dimensional, positive approach encompasses all the factors addressed by different contemporary theories. The most explicit expression of this is found in His addresses to the leaders of the world, the Súrih of the Temple (Súriy-i-Haykal).36See The Summons of the Lord of Hosts: Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh (Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 2010). https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/bahaullah/summons-lord-hosts/

In 1868, in response to His exile to ‘Akká, Bahá’u’lláh wrote individual messages to a number of world leaders, which comprise different parts of the Súrih of the Temple. Although this work constitutes a universal announcement of His revelation, the main message is His call to universal peace. From this call, we see that the real insight offered by the realist theory of peace is not its pessimism regarding the inevitability of war but rather its linking of war with the lack of collective security. In the Súrih of the Temple, Bahá’u’lláh consistently calls for a global approach to peace and the institutionalization of global collective security as a necessary means of realizing peace. Similarly, the concerns addressed in democratic peace theory are also valid, and, although Bahá’u’lláh’s concept of democracy is far more complex than existing definitions and practices, in the Súrih of the Temple He praises democracy as a necessary element for the realization of peace. Impediments to peace such as social inequality, identified in Marxist/socialist theories, are also addressed in this Tablet, which calls for social justice and the elimination of poverty, and points to the arms race as a main cause of social inequality and poverty in the world. Finally, the contribution of the cultural theory in pointing to the need for a culture of peace should be acknowledged; however, such a culture should not be confused with mere consensus regarding the necessity of peace. Rather, in the Súrih of the Temple Bahá’u’lláh calls for a culture of peace based on a new definition of identity, a rejection of patriarchy, and the elimination of all kinds of prejudice.

Bahá’u’lláh sees lasting peace as a multidimensional structure of social relations that includes a culture of peace, democracy, collective security, and social justice, among other elements. These are not random variables or opposed concepts; rather, for Bahá’u’lláh all four are inseparable, interdependent, and harmonious expressions of His spiritual definition of human reality.

The Súrih of the Temple begins with a discussion of the human being as a sacred temple of God. According to Bahá’u’lláh’s writings, humans were created to exist in a state of cooperation, unity, and peace. The brutish culture of war and hatred is opposed to the reality of human beings, who are mirrors of God and reflect divine attributes; all are the thrones of God, created by the same Fashioner, brought into existence through the same creative divine Word and endowed with spiritual potentialities. That is why Bahá’u’lláh consistently calls the world the common home of all peoples and defines a human being as one who, today, dedicateth himself to the service of the entire human race.37Bahá’u’lláh, Lawḥ-i-Maqṣúd (Tablet of Maqṣúd), Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, 167. This spiritual definition of humanity is centered on the rejection of the law of the jungle and the reduction of humans to that level. In the Tablet of Wisdom, Bahá’u’lláh says that humans are not created for enmity and hatred but rather for solidarity and cooperation. From this philosophical principle He deduces the necessity of a new definition of honor, in which true honor is associated with serving and loving the entire human race:

O ye beloved of the Lord! Commit not that which defileth the limpid stream of love or destroyeth the sweet fragrance of friendship. By the righteousness of the Lord! Ye were created to show love one to another and not perversity and rancour. Take pride not in love for yourselves but in love for your fellow-creatures. Glory not in love for your country, but in love for all mankind.38Bahá’u’lláh, Lawḥ-i-Hikmat (Tablet of Wisdom), Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, 138, para 5.

This spiritual definition of human beings is equated with the true meaning of freedom. Explaining Bahá’u’lláh’s message, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá identifies true freedom as overcoming the logic of the struggle for existence. The time has come for humans to appear as human beings and not as beasts:

And among the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh is man’s freedom, that through the ideal Power he should be free and emancipated from the captivity of the world of nature; for as long as man is captive to nature he is a ferocious animal, as the struggle for existence is one of the exigencies of the world of nature. This matter of the struggle for existence is the fountain-head of all calamities and is the supreme affliction.39‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1997), 316, #227, para 20.

It is obvious that a culture of peace is a necessary reflection of Bahá’u’lláh’s definition of human beings. In this culture, identities are defined in terms of the reciprocal interdependence of human beings rather than contrast or opposition. Such a definition is based upon the Bahá’í concept of unity in diversity, perhaps the most well-known expression of which is Bahá’u’lláh’s aphorism:

O well-beloved ones! The tabernacle of unity hath been raised; regard ye not one another as strangers. Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch.40Bahá’u’lláh, Lawḥ-i-Mánikc̲h̲í Ṣáḥib (Tablet to Mánikc̲h̲í Ṣáḥib), The Tabernacle of Unity: Bahá’u’lláh’s Responses to Mánikc̲h̲í Ṣáḥib and Other Writings (Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 2006), 9, para 1.15.

It should be noted that in the above statement unity is not opposed to plurality but rather to estrangement. For Bahá’u’lláh, unity is unity in diversity. Like a tree, the human family consists of various fruits and leaves, but all belong to the same spiritual tree. In the original Persian, unity is yigánigí, and estrangement is bígánigí, its literal opposite. Therefore, a culture of peace is opposed both to a repressive negation of plurality and diversity and to an alienating concept of plurality that sees no possibility of communication, interdependence, and unity among the diverse units of social reality. The Bahá’í concept of unity affirms the diversity of communication but not a diversity of mutual alienation and estrangement.

In this new culture of peace called for in the Súrih of the Temple, a central component is the rejection of the violent culture of patriarchy. At the beginning of the Súrih, Bahá’u’lláh describes His first experience of revelation through the medium of the Maid of Heaven. As previously discussed, this means that the highest spiritual reality, the truth of all the Manifestations, is presented as a feminine reality:

While engulfed in tribulations I heard a most wondrous, a most sweet voice, calling above My head. Turning My face, I beheld a Maiden—the embodiment of the remembrance of the name of My Lord—suspended in the air before Me. So rejoiced was she in her very soul that her countenance shone with the ornament of the good pleasure of God, and her cheeks glowed with the brightness of the All-Merciful. Betwixt earth and heaven she was raising a call which captivated the hearts and minds of men. She was imparting to both My inward and outer being tidings which rejoiced My soul, and the souls of God’s honoured servants. Pointing with her finger unto My head, she addressed all who are in heaven and all who are on earth, saying: By God! This is the Best-Beloved of the worlds, and yet ye comprehend not.41Bahá’u’lláh, Súriy-i-Haykal (Súrih of the Temple), Summons of the Lord of Hosts, 5, para 6.

But if a culture of peace is the logical expression of Bahá’u’lláh’s spiritual definition of the human being, His praise of democracy is another organic expression of His spiritual worldview. As discussed earlier, Bahá’u’lláh’s understanding of humans as spiritual and rational beings is the reason for the replacement of the sword by the word. But His emphasis on the spiritual duty of each individual to think and search independently after truth is accompanied by His affirmation of the unity of all human beings. A natural consequence is His praise of consultation. For Bahá’u’lláh, both individuals’ independent thought and their spiritual unity are realized through the imperative of consultation. His statement, For everything there is and will continue to be a station of perfection and maturity. The maturity of the gift of understanding (khirad) is made manifest through consultation,42Bahá’u’lláh, from a Tablet translated from the Persian, in Consultation: A Compilation, Prepared by the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice (February 1978, rev. November 1990), 3. http://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/compilations/consultation/. The word khirad, rendered as gift of understanding in English, is, literally, reason. ndicates that consultation reflects the maturation and realization of human spiritual powers. The wider the expanse of consultation, the greater the likelihood of attaining truth. Democracy is a natural expression of this principle. In the Súrih of the Temple, addressing the Queen of England (the only sovereign of a democratic nation who was addressed by Bahá’u’lláh), He praises both parliamentary democracy and the outlawing of the slave trade:

We have been informed that thou hast forbidden the trading in slaves, both men and women. This, verily, is what God hath enjoined in this wondrous Revelation. God hath, truly, destined a reward for thee, because of this…

…We have also heard that thou hast entrusted the reins of counsel into the hands of the representatives of the people. Thou, indeed, hast done well, for thereby the foundations of the edifice of thine affairs will be strengthened, and the hearts of all that are beneath thy shadow, whether high or low, will be tranquilized.43Bahá’u’lláh, Súriy-i-Haykal (Súrih of the Temple), Summons of the Lord of Hosts, 89–90, paras 172–73.

Bahá’u’lláh’s rejection of slavery and His call for political democracy are inseparable expressions of the same spiritual definition of human beings, but His concept of democracy is far more complex than current approaches. First, He extends democracy not only to the level of nation states but also to international relations. His concept of collective security is an expression of His concept of global consultation and democratic subjugation of the law of the struggle for existence at the level of international relations. Second, He sees democracy as the art of consultation and not a constant war of domination, dehumanization, insult, and enmity among contending parties who are never willing to engage in consultation with one another.

This spiritual definition of human beings and the consequent rejection of the struggle for existence as a legitimate regulating principle of human relations necessarily calls for a system of collective security and for transcendence over a militaristic and animalistic culture of mutual estrangement. But this same definition of humans as noble beings is inseparable from the imperative of social and economic justice. While both pure communism and pure capitalism reduce humans to the level of the jungle and eliminate human freedom, social and economic justice are compatible with a culture of peace, democratic order, and collective security. In the Súrih of the Temple, Bahá’u’lláh calls for both an end to the arms race and movement towards economic justice as preconditions of a lasting peace:

O kings of the earth! We see you increasing every year your expenditures, and laying the burden thereof on your subjects. This, verily, is wholly and grossly unjust. Fear the sighs and tears of this Wronged One, and lay not excessive burdens on your peoples. Do not rob them to rear palaces for yourselves; nay rather choose for them that which ye choose for yourselves. Thus We unfold to your eyes that which profiteth you, if ye but perceive. Your people are your treasures. Beware lest your rule violate the commandments of God, and ye deliver your wards to the hands of the robber. By them ye rule, by their means ye subsist, by their aid ye conquer. Yet, how disdainfully ye look upon them! How strange, how very strange!

… Be united, O kings of the earth, for thereby will the tempest of discord be stilled amongst you, and your peoples find rest, if ye be of them that comprehend. Should any one among you take up arms against another, rise ye all against him, for this is naught but manifest justice.44Bahá’u’lláh, Súriy-i-Haykal (Súrih of the Temple), Summons of the Lord of Hosts, 93–94, paras 179 and 182.

Thus, in Bahá’u’lláh’s worldview, humanity has arrived at a new stage in its historical development, one that is defined by the realization of the unity in diversity of the entire world—the manifestation of the spiritual truth of all human beings. While the modern global cultural turn towards the appreciation of peace is often understood as a product of the revolt against religion and spirituality, the opposite is, in fact, true. As recent postmodern and relativistic philosophies have made clear, a materialistic philosophy is most compatible either with relativity of values or affirmation of the law of nature, namely the struggle for existence. In contrast, a noble conception of all human beings and the affirmation of their equal rights are based upon a spiritual understanding of human reality. In the writings of Bahá’u’lláh, a reconstructed mystical and spiritual consciousness is the necessary foundation of the twin principles of the oneness of humankind and universal peace.

By Douglas Martin

The year 1994 marked the 150th anniversary of the declaration of His mission by the Báb (Siyyid ‘Alí-Muhammad, 1819–1850), one of the two Founders of the Bahá’í Faith. The moment invites an attempt to gain an overview of the extraordinary historical consequences that have flowed from an event little noticed at the time outside the confines of the remote and decadent society within which it occurred.

The first half of the 19th century was a period of messianic expectation in the Islamic world, as was the case in many parts of Christendom. In Persia a wave of millenialist enthusiasm had swept many in the religiously educated class of Shí‘ih Muslim society, focused on belief that the fulfillment of prophecies in the Qur’án and the Islamic traditions was at hand. It was to one such ardent seeker1Mullá Husayn-i-Bushru’í. that, on the night of 22–23 May 1844, the Báb (a title meaning Gate) announced that He was the Bearer of a Divine Revelation destined not only to transform Islam but to set a new direction for the spiritual life of humankind.

During the decade that followed, mounting opposition from both clergy and state brought about the martyrdom of the Báb, the massacre of His leading disciples and of several thousands of His followers, and the virtual extinction of the religious system that He had founded. Out of these harrowing years, however, emerged a successor movement, the Bahá’í Faith, that has since spread throughout the planet and established its claim to represent a new and independent world religion.

It is to Bahá’u’lláh (Mírzá Husayn-‘Alí, 1817–1892), that the worldwide Bahá’í community looks as the source of its spiritual and social teachings, the authority for the laws and institutions that shape its life, and the vision of unity that has today made it one of the most geographically widespread and ethnically diverse of organized bodies of people on the planet. It is from Bahá’u’lláh that the Faith derives its name and toward Whose resting place in the Holy Land that the millions of Bahá’ís around the world daily direct their thoughts when they turn to God in prayer.

These circumstances in no way diminish, however, the fact that the new Faith was born amid the bloody and terrible magnificence surrounding the Báb’s brief mission, nor that the inspiration for its worldwide spread has been the spirit of self-sacrifice that Bahá’ís find in His life and the lives of the heroic band that followed Him. Prayers revealed by the Báb and passages from His voluminous writings are part of the devotional life of Bahá’ís everywhere. The events of His mission are commemorated as annual holy days in tens of thousands of local Bahá’í communities.2The anniversary of the birth of the Báb is commemorated on the day following the occurrence of the eighth new moon in the Bahá’í year, which moves between mid-October and mid-November; His declaration, 23 or 24 May; and His martyrdom, 9 or 10 July. On the slopes of Mount Carmel, the golden-domed Shrine where His mortal remains are buried dominates the great complex of monumental buildings and gardens constituting the administrative center of the Faith’s international activities.

In contemporary public awareness of the Bahá’í community and its activities, however, the life and person of Bahá’u’lláh have largely overshadowed those of the Báb. In a sense, it is natural that this should be the case, given the primary role of Bahá’u’lláh as the fulfillment of the Báb’s promises and the Architect of the Faith’s achievements. To some extent, however, this circumstance also reflects the painfully slow emergence of the new religion from obscurity onto the stage of history. In a perceptive comment on the subject, the British historian Arnold Toynbee compared the level of appreciation of the Bahá’í Faith in most Western lands with the similarly limited impression that the mission of Jesus Christ had succeeded in making on the educated class in the Roman Empire some 300 years after His death.3Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, vol. 8 (London: Oxford, 1954). 117. Since most of the public activity of the Bahá’í community over the past several decades has focused on the demanding task of presenting Bahá’u’lláh’s message, and elaborating the implications of its social teachings for the life of society, the Faith’s 19th-century Persian origins have tended to become temporarily eclipsed in the public mind.

Indeed, Bahá’ís, too, are challenged by the implications of the extraordinary idea that our age has witnessed the appearance of two almost contemporaneous Messengers of God. Bahá’u’lláh describes the phenomenon as one of the distinguishing characteristics of the new religion and as a mystery central to the plan of God for the unification of humankind and the establishment of a global civilization.4Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh: Selected Letters, 2d rev ed (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1974), 123–24.

Fundamental to the Bahá’í conception of the evolution of civilization is an analogy to be found in the writings of both the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh. It draws a parallel between the process by which the human race has gradually been civilized and that whereby each one of its individual members passes through the successive stages of infancy, childhood, and adolescence to adulthood. The idea throws a measure of light on the relationship which Bahá’ís see between the missions of the two Founders of their religion.

Both the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh—the former implicitly and the latter explicitly—describe the human race as standing now on the brink of its collective maturity. Apart from the Báb’s role as a Messenger of God, His advent marks the fruition of the process of the refining of human nature which thousands of years of Divine revelation have cultivated. It can be viewed, in that sense, as the gateway through which humankind must pass as it takes up the responsibilities of maturity. Its brevity itself seems symbolic of the relative suddenness of the transition.5I owe this interesting suggestion to Dr. Hossain Danesh.

At the individual level, no sooner does one cross the critical threshold of maturity in his or her development than the challenges and opportunities of adulthood beckon. The emerging potentialities of human life must now find expression through the long years of responsibility and achievement: they must become actualized through marriage, a profession and family, and service to society. In the collective life of humanity, it is the mission of Bahá’u’lláh, the universal Messenger of God anticipated in the scriptures of all the world’s religions.


The room where the Báb declared His Mission.

Even as late as the end of the 19th century, however, it was the Báb who figured as the central Personality of the new religion among most of those Westerners who had become aware of its existence. Writing in the American periodical Forum in 1925, the French literary critic Jules Bois remembered the extraordinary impact which the story of the Báb continued to have on educated opinion in Europe as the 19th century closed:

All Europe was stirred to pity and indignation … . Among the littérateurs of my generation, in the Paris of 1890, the martyrdom of the Báb was still as fresh a topic as had been the first news of His death in 1850. We wrote poems about Him. Sarah Bernhardt entreated Catulle Mendès for a play on the theme of this historic tragedy.6Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By (1944; reprint, Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1974), 56, and The Bahá’í World, vol. 9, 1940–1944 (1945; reprint, Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1981), 588.

Writers as diverse as Joseph Arthur de Gobineau, Edward Granville Browne, Ernest Renan, Aleksandr Tumanskiy, A.L.M. Nicolas, Viktor Rosen, Clément Huart, George Curzon, Matthew Arnold, and Leo Tolstoy were affected by the spiritual drama that had unfolded in Persia during the middle years of the 19th century. Not until the early part of our own century did the name the Bahá’í Cause, which the new religion had already adopted for itself as early as the 1860s, replace the designation of Bábí movement in general usage in the West.7Persistent use of the term Bábí in Iranian Muslim attacks on the Bahá’í Faith over the years has tended to be a reflection of the spirit of animosity incited by its original 19th-century clerical opponents.

That this should have been the case was no doubt a reflection of the degree to which the brief but incandescent life of the Báb seemed to catch up and embody cultural ideals that had dominated European thought during the first half of the 19th century, and which exercised a powerful influence on the Western imagination for many decades thereafter. The concept commonly used to describe the course of Europe’s cultural and intellectual development during the first five or six decades of the 19th century is Romanticism. By the century’s beginning, European thought had begun to look beyond its preoccupation with the arid rationalism and mechanistic certainties of the Enlightenment toward an exploration of other dimensions of existence: the aesthetic, the emotional, the intuitive, the mystical, the natural, the irrational.Literature, philosophy, history, music, and art all responded strongly and gradually exerted a sympathetic influence on the popular mind.

In England, where the tendency was already gathering force as the century opened, one effect was to produce perhaps the most spectacular outpouring of lyrical poetry that the language has ever known. Over the next two to three decades these early insights were to find powerful echoes throughout Western Europe. A new order of things, a whole new world, lay within reach, if man would only dare what was needed. Liberated by the intellectual upheaval of the preceding decades, poets, artists and musicians conceived of themselves as the voice of immense creative capacities latent in human consciousness and seeking expression; as prophets shaping a new conception of human nature and human society. With the validity of traditional religion now shrouded in doubt, mythical figures and events from the classical past were summoned up to serve as vehicles for this heroic Ideal:

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than Death or Night;
To defy Power which seems Omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope, till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates …
This alone is Life, Joy, Empire and Victory.8Percy Bysshe Shelley, Prometheus Unbound, bk. 4, ll. 569–78.

The same longings had awakened in America in the decades immediately preceding the Civil War and were to leave an indelible imprint on public consciousness. All of the transcendentalists became deeply attracted by the mystical literature of the Orient: the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana, and the Upanishads, as well as the works of the major Islamic poets, Rúmí, Háfiz, and Sa‘dí. The effect can be appreciated in such influential writings of Emerson as the Divinity School Address:

I look for the hour when that supreme Beauty which ravished the souls of those eastern Men, and chiefly those of the Hebrews, and through their lips spoke oracles to all time, shall speak in the West also … I look for the new Teacher that shall follow so far those shining laws that He shall see them come full circle; … shall see the world to be the mirror of the soul; shall see the identity of the law of gravitation with purity of heart; and shall show … that Duty is one thing with Science, with Beauty, and with Joy.9Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Divinity School Address, Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson, S.E. Wricher, ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960), 115–16.

As the century advanced, the early Romantic optimism found itself increasingly mired in the successive disappointments and defeats of the revolutionary fervor it had helped arouse. Under the pressure of scientific and technological change, the culture of philosophical materialism to which enlightenment speculation had originally given rise gradually consolidated itself. The wars and revolutionary upheavals of the middle years of the century contributed further to a mood of realism, a recognition that great ideals must somehow be reconciled with the obdurate circumstances of human nature.

Even in the relatively sober atmosphere of Victorian public discourse, however, Romantic yearnings retained a potent influence in Western consciousness. They produced a susceptibility to spiritual impulses which, while different from that which had characterized the opening decades of the century, now affected a broad public. If the revolutionary figure of Prometheus no longer spoke to English perceptions of the age, the Arthurian legend caught up the popular hope, blending youthful idealism with the insights of maturity, and capturing the imagination of millions precisely on that account:

The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.10Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Idylls of the King: The Passing of Arthur, ll. 408–10.

It is hardly surprising that, on minds formed in this cultural milieu, the figure of the Báb should exert a compelling fascination, as Westerners became acquainted with His story in the latter years of the century. Particularly appealing was the purity of His life, an unshadowed nobility of character that had won the hearts of many among His fellow countrymen who had come as doubters or even enemies and stayed to lay down their lives in His cause. Words which the Báb addressed to the first group of His disciples suggest the nature of the moral standards He held up as goals for those who responded to His call:

Purge your hearts of worldly desires, and let angelic virtues be your adorning. … The days when idle worship was deemed sufficient are ended. The time is come when naught but the purest motive, supported by deeds of stainless purity, can ascend to the throne of the Most High and be acceptable unto Him. … Beseech the Lord your God to grant that no earthly entanglements, no worldly affections, no ephemeral pursuits, may tarnish the purity, or embitter the sweetness, of that grace which flows through you.11Muhammad-i-Zarandí (Nabil-i-A’zam), The Dawn-breakers: Nabil’s Narrative of the Early Days of the Bahá’í Revelation, translated from the Persian by Shoghi Effendi (1932; reprint, Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1974), 93.

Purity of heart was coupled with a courage and willingness for self-sacrifice that Western observers found deeply inspiring. The commentaries of Ernest Renan and others drew the inescapable parallel with the life of Jesus Christ. As the extraordinary drama of His final moments convincingly demonstrated,12The Báb, together with a young follower, was suspended by ropes from a courtyard wall in the citadel in Tabriz, and an Armenian Christian regiment, whose commander had expressed great uneasiness about the assignment, was ordered to open fire on the prisoners. When the smoke from the 750 rifles had cleared, near pandemonium broke out among the crowd of spectators thronging the roofs and walls. The Báb’s companion was standing uninjured at the foot of the wall, and the Báb Himself had disappeared from view. The entire volley had done no more than sever the ropes. The Báb had returned to the room in which He had been held, in order to complete instructions to His amanuensis, which had been interrupted by His jailers. The Armenian regiment immediately left the citadel, refusing any further participation. It would have taken only a gesture of encouragement from the Báb for the crowd, now in a state of intense excitement aroused by what they regarded as a miracle, to have delivered Him from His captors. When He did not take advantage of this opening, the authorities eventually recovered their composure and summoned a regiment of Muslim soldiers who carried out the planned execution. Though dramatic, the incident was not an isolated event in the Báb’s ministry. Four years earlier, the wealthy and powerful Governor of Isfáhán, Manúchir Khán, who was the Báb’s host and warm admirer, had offered to march on the capital with his army and induce Persia’s feeble ruler, Muhammad Sháh, to meet the Báb and listen to His message. The offer was courteously declined, and Manúchir Khán’s subsequent death led directly to the Báb’s arrest, imprisonment and execution. the Báb could have at any moment saved Himself and achieved mastery over those who persecuted Him by taking advantage of the folly of His adversaries and the superstition of the general populace. He scorned to do so, and accepted death at the hands of His enemies only when satisfied that His mission had been completed in its entirety and in conformity with the Will of God. His followers, who had divested themselves of all earthly attachments and advantages, were barbarously massacred by adversaries who had sworn on the Qur’án to spare their lives and their honor, and who shamefully abused their wives and children after their deaths. Renan writes:

Des milliers de martyrs sont accourus pour lui avec l’allégresse au devant de la mort. Un jour sans pareil peut-être dans l’histoire du monde fut celui de la grande boucherie qui se fit des Bábís, à Téhéran. On vit ce jour-là dans les rues et les bazars de Téhéran, dit un narrateur qui a tout su d’original, un spectacle que la population semble devoir n’oublier jamais. … Enfants et femmes s’avançaient en chantant un verset qui dit: En vérité nous venons de Dieu et nous retournons à Lui.13Ernest Renan, Les Apôtres, translated from the French by William G. Hutchison (London: Watts & Co., 1905), 134. For his sake, thousands of martyrs flocked to their death. A day unparalleled perhaps in the world’s history was that of the great massacre of the Bábís at Teheran. ‘On that day was to be seen in the streets and bazaars of Teheran,’ says a narrator, who has first-hand knowledge, ‘a spectacle which it does not seem that the populations can ever forget…. Women and children advanced, singing a verse, which says: In truth we come from God, and unto him we return.’ The narrator referred to is J.A. de Gobineau, 3d ed., Les Religions et les Philosophies dan l’Asie Centrale (Paris: Ernest Leroux, 1900), 304 et seq.

Purity of heart and moral courage were matched by an idealism with which most Western observers could also readily identify. By the 19th century, the Persia to which the Báb addressed Himself and which had once been one of the world’s great civilizations, had sunk to an object of despair and contempt among foreign visitors. A population ignorant, apathetic, and superstitious in the extreme was the prey of a profoundly corrupt Muslim clergy and the brutal regime of the Qájár shahs. Shí‘ih Islam had, for the most part, degenerated into a mass of superstitions and mindless legalisms. Security of life and property depended entirely on the whims of those in authority.

Such was the society that the Báb summoned to reflection and self-discipline. A new age had dawned; God demanded purity of heart rather than religious formulae, an inner condition that must be matched by cleanliness in all aspects of daily life; truth was a goal to be won not by blind imitation but by personal effort, prayer, meditation, and detachment from the appetites. The nature of the accounts which Western writers like Gobineau, Browne, and Nicolas were later to hear from surviving followers of the Báb can be appreciated from the words in which Mullá Husayn-i-Bushrú’í described the effect on him of his first meeting with the Báb:

I felt possessed of such courage and power that were the world, all its peoples and its potentates, to rise against me, I would, alone and undaunted, withstand their onslaught. The universe seemed but a handful of dust in my grasp. I seemed to be the Voice of Gabriel personified, calling unto all mankind: Awake, for, lo! the morning Light has broken.14The Dawn-breakers, 65.

European observers, visiting the country long after the Báb’s martyrdom, were struck by the moral distinction achieved by Persia’s Bahá’í community. Explaining to Western readers the success of Bahá’í teaching activities among the Persian population, in contrast to the ineffectual efforts of Christian missionaries, E.G. Browne said:

To the Western observer, however, it is the complete sincerity of the Bábís [sic], their fearless disregard of death and torture undergone for the sake of their religion, their certain conviction as to the truth of their faith, their generally admirable conduct towards mankind and especially towards their fellow-believers, which constitutes their strongest claim on his attention.15E.G. Browne, introduction to Myron H. Phelps, Life and Teachings of Abbas Effendi, 2d rev ed (New York; London: G.P. Putname’s Sons: The Knickerbocker Press, 1912), xvi.

The figure of the Báb appealed strongly also to aesthetic sensibilities which Romanticism had awakened. Apart from those of His countrymen whose positions were threatened by His mission, surviving accounts by all who met Him agree in their description of the extraordinary beauty of His person and of His physical movements. His voice, particularly when chanting the tablets and prayers He revealed, possessed a sweetness that captivated the heart. Even His clothing and the furnishings of His simple house were marked by a degree of refinement that seemed to reflect the inner spiritual beauty that so powerfully attracted His visitors.

Particular reference must be made to the originality of the Báb’s thought and the manner in which He chose to express it. Throughout all the vicissitudes of the 19th century, the European mind had continued to cling to the ideal of the ‘man of destiny’ who, through the sheer creative force of his untrammeled genius, could set a new course in human affairs. At the beginning of the century, Napoleon Bonaparte had seemed to represent such a phenomenon, and not even the disillusionment that had followed his betrayal of the ideal had discouraged the powerful current of individualism that was one of the Romantic movement’s principal legacies to the century and, indeed, to our own.

Out of the Báb’s writings emerges a sweeping new approach to religious truth. Its sheer boldness was one of the principal reasons for the violence of the opposition that His work aroused among the obscurantist Muslim clergy who dominated all serious discourse in 19th-century Persia. These challenging concepts were matched by the highly innovative character of the language in which they were communicated.

In its literary form, Arabic possesses an almost hypnotic beauty—a beauty which, in the language of the Qur’án, attains levels of the sublime which Muslims of all ages have regarded as beyond imitation by mortal man. For all Muslims, regardless of their sect, culture, or nation, Arabic is the language of Revelation par excellence. The proof of the Divine origin of the Qur’án lay not chiefly in its character as literature, but in the power its verses possessed to change human behavior and attitudes. Although, like Jesus and Muhammad before Him, the Báb had little formal schooling, He used both Arabic and His native Persian, alternately, as the themes of His discourse required.

To His hearers, the most dramatic sign of the Báb’s spiritual authority was that, for the first time in more than 12 centuries, human ears were privileged to hear again the inimitable accents of Revelation. Indeed, in one important respect, the Qur’án was far surpassed. Tablets, meditations, and prayers of thrilling power flowed effortlessly from the lips of the Báb. In one extraordinary period of two days, His writings exceeded in quantity the entire text of the Qur’án, which represented the fruit of 23 years of Muhammad’s prophetic output. No one among His ecclesiastical opponents ventured to take up His public challenge: Verily We have made the revelation of verses to be a testimony for Our message to you. i.e., In the Qur’án God had explicitly established the miracle of the Book’s power as His sole proof. Can ye produce a single letter to match these verses? Bring forth, then, your proofs ….16The Báb, Selections from the Writings of the Báb (Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 1976), 43.

Moreover, despite His ability to use traditional Arabic forms when He chose to do so, the Báb showed no hesitancy in abandoning these conventions as the requirements of His message dictated. He resorted freely to neologisms, new grammatical constructions, and other variants on accepted speech whenever He found existing terms inadequate vehicles for the revolutionary new conception of spiritual reality He vigorously advanced. Rebuked by learned Shí‘ih mujtahids at His trial in Tabríz (1848) for violations of the rules of grammar, the Báb reminded those who followed Him that the Word of God is the Creator of language as of all other things, shaping it according to His purpose.17The Dawn-breakers, 321–22. Through the power of His Word, God says BE, and it is.

The principle is as old as prophetic religion;—is indeed, central to it:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. … He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.18John 1:1–10, Authorized (King James) Version.

The implications for humanity’s response to the Messenger of God at His advent is touched on in a passage of one of Bahá’u’lláh’s major works, The Four Valleys. Quoting the Persian poet Rúmí, He says:

The story is told of a mystic knower who went on a journey with a learned grammarian for a companion. They came to the shore of the Sea of Grandeur. The knower, putting his trust in God, straightway flung himself into the waves, but the grammarian stood bewildered and lost in thoughts that were as words that are written on water. The mystic called out to him, Why dost thou not follow? The grammarian answered, O brother, what can I do? As I dare not advance, I must needs go back again. Then the mystic cried, Cast aside what thou hast learned from Síbavayh and Qawlavayh, from Ibn-i-Ḥájib and Ibn-i-Málik, and cross the water.

With renunciation, not with grammar’s rules, one must be armed:
Be nothing, then, and cross this sea unharmed.19Bahá’u’lláh, The Call of the Divine Beloved (Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 219), 88–89. At the time of this article’s original publication, an earlier translation of The Four Valleys was used. This article has been updated to reflect the new authorized translation of the work.

For the young seminarians who most eagerly responded to Him, the originality of the Báb’s language, far from creating an obstacle to their appreciation of His message, itself represented another compelling sign of the Divine mission He claimed. It challenged them to break out of familiar patterns of perception, to stretch their intellectual faculties, to discover in this new Revelation a true freedom of the spirit.

However baffling some of the Báb’s writings were to prove for His later European admirers, the latter also perceived Him to be a unique figure, one who had found within His own soul the vision of a transcendent new reality and who had acted unhesitatingly on the imperative it represented. Most of their commentaries tended to reflect the Victorian era’s dualistic frame of mind and were presented as scientifically motivated observations of what their authors considered to be an important religious and cultural phenomenon. In the introduction to his translation of A Traveler’s Narrative, for example, the Cambridge scholar Edward Granville Browne took pains to justify the unusual degree of attention he had devoted to the Bábí movement in his research work:

…here he [the student of religion] may contemplate such personalities as by lapse of time pass into heroes and demi-gods still unobscured by myth and fable; he may examine by the light of concurrent and independent testimony one of those strange outbursts of enthusiasm, faith, fervent devotion, and indomitable heroism—or fanaticism, if you will—which we are accustomed to associate with the earlier history of the human race; he may witness, in a word, the birth of a faith which may not impossibly win a place amidst the great religions of the world.20E.G. Browne, Introduction to A Traveler’s Narrative: Written to Illustrate the Episode of the Báb, by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Trans. E.G. Browne (New York: Bahá’í Publishing Committee, 1930), viii.

The electrifying effect that the phenomenon exerted, however—even on a cautious and scientifically trained European intellect and after the passage of several decades—can be appreciated from Browne’s concluding remarks in a major article in Religious Systems of the World, published in 1892, the year of Bahá’u’lláh’s passing:

I trust that I have told you enough to make it clear that the objects at which this religion aims are neither trivial nor unworthy of the noble self-devotion and heroism of the Founder and his followers. It is the lives and deaths of these, their hope which knows no despair, their love which knows no cooling, their steadfastness which knows no wavering, which stamp this wonderful movement with a character entirely its own. … It is not a small or easy thing to endure what these have endured, and surely what they deemed worth life itself is worth trying to understand. I say nothing of the mighty influence which, as I believe, the Bábí faith will exert in the future, nor of the new life it may perchance may breathe into a dead people; for, whether it succeed or fail, the splendid heroism of the Bábí martyrs is a thing eternal and indestructible.21E.G. Browne, Bábíism, Religious Systems of the World, 3d ed (London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co. and New York: MacMillan & Co., 1892), 352–53.

So powerful was this impression that most Western observers tended to lose sight of the Báb’s purpose through fascination with His life and person. Browne himself, whose research made him pre-eminent among the second generation of European authorities on the Bábí movement, largely failed to grasp the role the Báb’s mission played in preparing the way for the work of Bahá’u’lláh or, indeed, the way in which the achievements of the latter represented the Báb’s eventual triumph and vindication.22Browne’s objectivity appears to have been clouded, as well, by his hope that the Bábís would focus their energies on the political reform of Persia itself. Criticizing what he saw as Bahá’u’lláh’s diversion of Bahá’í energies from domestic politics to the cause of world unity, he complained that … just now it is men who love their country above all else that Persia needs. English introduction to the Nuqtatu’l-Káf, cited in H.M. Balyuzi, Edward Granville Browne and the Bahá’í Faith (London: George Ronald, 1970), 88. The French writer A.L.M. Nicolas was much more fortunate, in part simply because he lived long enough to benefit from a greater historical perspective. Initially antagonistic toward what he saw as Bahá’u’lláh’s supplanting of the Báb, he came finally to appreciate the Bahá’í view that the Báb was one of two successive Manifestations of God whose joint mission is the unification and pacification of the planet.23The Bahá’í World, vol. 9, 1940–44 (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1945), 584–85.

This brief historical framework will be of assistance in understanding the thrust of the Báb’s teachings. In one sense, His message is abundantly clear. As He repeatedly emphasized, the purpose of His mission and the object of all His endeavors was the proclamation of the imminent advent of Him Whom God will make manifest, that universal Manifestation of God anticipated in religious scriptures throughout the ages of human history. Indeed, all of the laws revealed by the Báb were intended simply to prepare His followers to recognize and serve the Promised One at His advent:

We have planted the Garden of the Bayán [i.e., His Revelation] in the name of Him Whom God will make manifest, and have granted you permission to live therein until the time of His manifestation; …24Selections from the Writings of the Báb, 135.

The Báb’s mission was to prepare humanity for the coming of an age of transformation beyond anything the generation that heard Him would be able to understand. Their duty was to purify their hearts so that they could recognize the One for Whom the whole world was waiting and serve the establishment of the Kingdom of God. The Báb was thus the Door through which this long-awaited universal theophany would appear.

At the time of the appearance of Him Whom God will make manifest the most distinguished among the learned and the lowliest of men shall both be judged alike. How often the most insignificant of men have acknowledged the truth, while the most learned have remained wrapt in veils.25Ibid., 91.

Significantly, the initial references to the Promised Deliverer appear in the Báb’s first major work, the Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’, passages of which were revealed by Him on the night of the declaration of His mission. The entire work is ostensibly a collection of commentaries on the Súrih of Joseph in the Qur’án, which the Báb interprets as foreshadowing the coming of the Divine Joseph, that Remnant of God Who will fulfill the promises of the Qur’án and of all the other scriptures of the past. More than any other work, the Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’ vindicated for Bábís the prophetic claims of its Author and served, throughout the early part of the Báb’s ministry, as the Qur’án or the Bible of His community.

O peoples of the East and the West! Be ye fearful of God concerning the Cause of the true Joseph and barter Him not for a paltry price established by yourselves, or for a trifle of your earthly possessions, that ye may, in very truth, be praised by Him as those who are reckoned among the pious who stand nigh unto this Gate.26Selections from the Writings of the Báb, 49.

In 1848, only two years before His martyrdom, the Báb revealed the Bayán, the book which was to serve as the principal repository of His laws and the fullest expression of His theological doctrines. Essentially the book is an extended tribute to the coming Promised One, now invariably termed Him Whom God will make manifest. The latter designation occurs some 300 times in the book, appearing in virtually every one of its chapters, regardless of their ostensible subject. The Bayán and all it contains depend upon His Will; the whole of the Bayán contains in fact nought but His mention; the Bayán is a humble gift from its Author to Him Whom God will make manifest; to attain His Presence is to attain the Presence of God. He is the Sun of Truth, the Advent of Truth, the Point of Truth, the Tree of Truth:27Persian Bayán, unpublished manuscript. References to units and chapters 7.1; 5.7; 4.1; and 7.11.

I swear by the most holy Essence of God—exalted and glorified be He—that in the Day of the appearance of Him Whom God shall make manifest a thousand perusals of the Bayán cannot equal the perusal of a single verse to be revealed by Him Whom God shall make manifest.28Selections from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, 104.

Some of the most powerful references to the subject are contained in tablets which the Báb addressed directly to Him Whom God would soon make manifest:

Out of utter nothingness, O great and omnipotent Master, Thou hast, through the celestial potency of Thy might, brought me forth and raised me up to proclaim this Revelation. I have made none other but Thee my trust; I have clung to no will but Thy Will. Thou art, in truth, the All-Sufficing and behind Thee standeth the true God, He Who overshadoweth all things.29Ibid., 59.

Apart from this central theme, the Báb’s writings present a daunting problem for even those Western scholars familiar with Persian and Arabic. To a considerable degree, this is due to the fact that the works often address minute matters of Shí‘ih Islamic theology which were of consuming importance to His listeners, whose minds had been entirely formed in this narrow intellectual world and who could conceive of no other. The study of the organizing spiritual principles within these writings will doubtless occupy generations of doctoral candidates as the Bahá’í community continues to expand and its influence in the life of society consolidates. For the Bábís, who received the writings at first hand, a great deal of their significance lay in their demonstration of the Báb’s effortless mastery of the most abstruse theological issues, issues to which His ecclesiastical opponents had devoted years of painstaking study and dispute. The effect was to dissolve for the Báb’s followers the intellectual foundations on which the prevailing Islamic theological system rested.

A feature of the Báb’s writings which is relatively accessible is the laws they contain. The Báb revealed what is, at first sight, the essential elements of a complete system of laws dealing with issues of both daily life and social organization. The question that comes immediately to the mind of any Western reader with even a cursory familiarity with Bábí history is the difficulty of reconciling this body of law which, however diffuse, might well have prevailed for several centuries, with the Báb’s reiterated anticipation that He Whom God will make manifest would shortly appear and lay the foundations of the Kingdom of God. While no one knew the hour of His coming, the Báb assured several of His followers that they would live to see and serve Him. Cryptic allusions to the year nine and the year nineteen heightened the anticipation within the Bábí community. No one could falsely claim to be He Whom God will make manifest, the Báb asserted, and succeed in such a claim.

It is elsewhere that we must look for the immediate significance of the laws of the Bayán. The practice of Islam, particularly in its Shí‘ih form, had become a matter of adherence to minutely detailed ordinances and prescriptions, endlessly elaborated by generations of mujtahids, and rigidly enforced. The sharí‘a, or system of canon law, was, in effect, the embodiment of the clergy’s authority over not only the mass of the population but even the monarchy itself. It contained all that mankind needed or could use. The mouth of God was closed until the Day of Judgment when the heavens would be cleft asunder, the mountains would dissolve, the seas would boil, trumpet blasts would rouse the dead from their graves, and God would come down surrounded by angels rank on rank.

For those who recognized the Báb, the legal provisions of the Bayán shattered the clergy’s institutional authority at one blow by making the entire sharí‘a structure irrelevant.30The challenge came into sharp focus for the Báb’s leading followers at a conference held at the small hamlet of Badasht in 1848. Interestingly, the figure who took the lead in bringing about a realization of the magnitude of the spiritual and intellectual changes set in motion by the Báb was a woman, the gifted poetess Táhirih who was also later to suffer martyrdom for her beliefs. God had spoken anew. Challenged by a superannuated religious establishment which claimed to act in the name of the Prophet, the Báb vindicated His claim by exercising, in their fullness, the authority and powers that Islam reserved to the Prophets. More than any other act of His mission, it was this boldness that cost Him His life, but the effect was to liberate the minds and hearts of His followers as no other influence could have done. That so many laws of the Bayán should shortly be superseded or significantly altered by those laid down by Bahá’u’lláh in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas31The Most Holy Book, Bahá’u’lláh’s charter for a new world civilization, written in Arabic in 1873. was, in the perspective of history and in the eyes of the mass of the Bábís who were to accept the new Revelation, of little significance once the Báb’s purpose had been accomplished.

In this connection, it is interesting to note the way in which the Báb dealt with issues that had no part in His mission, but which, if not addressed, could have become serious obstacles to His work because they were so deeply and firmly imbedded in Muslim religious consciousness. The concept of jihád or holy war, for example, is a commandment laid down in the Qur’án as obligatory for all able-bodied male Muslims and one whose practice has figured prominently in Islamic societies throughout the ages. In the Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’, the Báb is at pains to include a form of jihád as one of the prerogatives of the station which He claims for Himself. He made any engagement in jihád, however, entirely dependent on His own approval, an approval which He declined to give. Subsequently, the Bayán, although representing the formal promulgation of the laws of the new Dispensation, makes only passing reference to a subject which had so long seemed fundamental to the exercise of God’s Will. In ranging across Persia to proclaim the new Revelation, therefore, the Báb’s followers felt free to defend themselves when attacked, but their new beliefs did not include the old Islamic mandate to wage war on others for purposes of conversion.32In the Kitáb-i-Aqdas Bahá’u’lláh formally abolishes holy war as a feature of religious life. See William S. Hatcher and J. Douglas Martin, The Bahá’í Faith: The Emerging Global Religion (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1985), 13–14.

In the perspective of history, it is obvious that the intent of these rigid and exacting laws was to produce a spiritual mobilization, and in this they brilliantly succeeded. Foreseeing clearly where the course on which he was embarked would lead, the Báb prepared His followers, through a severe regimen of prayer, meditation, self-discipline, and solidarity of community life, to meet the inevitable consequences of their commitment to His mission.

The prescriptions in the Bayán extend, however, far beyond those immediate purposes. Consequently, when Bahá’u’lláh took up the task of establishing the moral and spiritual foundations of the new Dispensation, He built directly on the work of the Báb. The Kitáb-i-Aqdas, the Mother Book of the Bahá’í era, while not presented in the form of a systematic code, brings together for Bahá’ís the principal laws of their Faith. Guidance that relates to individual conduct or social practice is set in the framework of passages which summon the reader to a challenging new conception of human nature and purpose. A 19th-century Russian scholar who made one of the early attempts to translate the book compared Bahá’u’lláh’s pen writing the Aqdas to a bird, now soaring on the summits of heaven, now descending to touch the homeliest questions of everyday need.

The connection with the writings of the Báb is readily apparent to anyone who examines the provisions of the Aqdas. Those laws of the Bayán which have no relevance to the coming age are abrogated. Other prescriptions are reformulated, usually through liberalizing their requirements and broadening their applications. Still other provisions of the Bayán are retained virtually in their original form. An obvious example of the latter is Bahá’u’lláh’s adoption of the Báb’s calendar, which consists of 19 months of 19 days each, with provision for an intercalaryperiod of four or five days devoted to social gatherings, acts of charity, and the exchange of gifts with friends and family.


Qur’án belonging to the Báb

Apart from the specific laws of the Bayán, the Báb’s writings also contain the seeds of new spiritual perspectives and concepts which were to animate the worldwide Bahá’í enterprise. Beginning from the belief universally accepted by Muslims that God is one and transcendent, the Báb cuts sharply through the welter of conflicting doctrines and mystical speculations that had accumulated over more than 12 centuries of Islamic history. God is not only One and Single; He is utterly unknowable to humankind and will forever remain so. There is no direct connection between the Creator of all things and His creation.

The only avenue of approach to the Divine Reality behind existence is through the succession of Messengers Whom He sends. God manifests Himself to humanity in this fashion, and it is in the Person of His Manifestation that human consciousness can become aware of both the Divine Will and the Divine attributes. What the scriptures have described as meeting God,knowing God, worshiping God, serving God, refers to the response of the soul when it recognizes the new Revelation. The advent of the Messenger of God is itself the Day of Judgment. The Báb thus denies the validity of Súfí belief in the possibility of the individual’s mystical merging with the Divine Being through meditation and esoteric practices:

Deceive not your own selves that you are being virtuous for the sake of God when you are not. For should ye truly do your works for God, ye would be performing them for Him Whom God shall make manifest and would be magnifying His Name. … Ponder awhile that ye may not be shut out as by a veil from Him Who is the Dayspring of Revelation.33Selections from the Writings of the Báb, 86.

Going far beyond the orthodox Islamic conception of a succession of the Prophets that terminates with the mission of Muhammad, the Báb also declares the Revelation of God to be a recurring and never-ending phenomenon whose purpose is the gradual training and development of humankind. As human consciousness recognizes and responds to each Divine Messenger, the spiritual, moral, and intellectual capacities latent in it steadily develop, thus preparing the way for recognition of God’s next Manifestation.

The Manifestations of God—including Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad—are one in essence, although their physical persons differ, as do those aspects of their teachings that relate to an ever-evolving human society. Each can be said to have two stations: the human and the Divine. Each brings two proofs of His mission: His own Person and the truths He teaches. Either of these testimonies is sufficient for any sincerely inquiring soul; the issue is purity of intention, and this human quality is particularly valued in the Báb’s writings. Through unity of faith, reason and behavior, each person can, with the confirmations of God, reach that stage of development where one seeks for others the same things that one seeks for oneself.

Those who sincerely believe in the Messenger whose faith they follow are prepared by it to recognize the next Revelation from the one Divine Source. They thus become instruments through which the Word of God continues to realize its purpose in the life of humankind. This is the real meaning of the references in past religions to resurrection. Heaven and hell,similarly, are not places but conditions of the soul. An individual enters paradise in this world when he recognizes God’s Revelation and begins the process of perfecting his nature, a process that has no end, since the soul itself is immortal. In the same way, the punishments of God are inherent in a denial of His Revelation and disobedience to laws whose operation no one can escape.

Many of these concepts in the Báb’s writing can appeal to various references or at least intimations in the scriptures of earlier religions. It will be obvious from what has been said, however, that the Báb places them in an entirely new context and draws from them implications very different from those which they bore in any previous religious system.

The Báb described His teachings as opening the sealed wine referred to in both the Qur’án and New Testament. The Day of God does not envision the end of the world, but its perennial renewal. The earth will continue to exist, as will the human race, whose potentialities will progressively unfold in response to the successive impulses of the Divine. All people are equal in the sight of God, and the race has now advanced to the point where, with the imminent advent of Him Whom God will manifest, there is neither need nor place for a privileged class of clergy. Believers are encouraged to see the allegorical intent in passages of scriptures which were once viewed as references to supernatural or magical events. As God is one, so phenomenal reality is one, an organic whole animated by the Divine Will.

The contrast between this evolutionary and supremely rational conception of the nature of religious truth and that embodied by 19th-century Shí‘ih Islam could not have been more dramatic. Fundamental to orthodox Shí‘ism—whose full implications are today exposed in the regime of the Islamic Republic in Iran—was a literalistic understanding of the Qur’án, a preoccupation with meticulous adherence to the sharí‘a, a belief that personal salvation comes through the imitation (taqlíd) of clerical mentors, and an unbending conviction that Islam is God’s final and all-sufficient revelation of truth to the world. For so static and rigid a mindset, any serious consideration of the teachings of the Báb would have unthinkable consequences.

The Báb’s teachings, like the laws of the Bayán, are enunciated not in the form of an organized exposition, but lie rather embedded in the wide range of theological and mystical issues addressed in the pages of His voluminous writings. It is in the writings of Bahá’u’lláh that, as with the laws of the Bayán, these scattered truths and precepts are taken up, reshaped, and integrated into a unified, coherent system of belief. The subject lies far beyond the scope of this brief paper, but the reader will find in Bahá’u’lláh’s major doctrinal work, the Kitáb-i-Íqán (Book of Certitude), not only echoes of the Báb’s teachings, but a coherent exposition of their central concepts.

Finally, a striking feature of the Báb’s writings, which has emerged as an important element of Bahá’í belief and history, is the mission envisioned for the peoples of the West and admiration of the qualities that fit them for it. This, too, was in dramatic contrast to the professed contempt for farangi and infidel thought that prevailed in the Islamic world of His time. Western scientific advancement is particularly praised, for example, as are the fairness of mind and concern for cleanliness that the Báb saw Westerners on the whole as tending to display. His appreciation is not merely generalized but touches on even such mundane matters as postal systems and printing facilities.

At the outset of the Báb’s mission, the Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’ called on the peoples of the West to arise and leave their homes in promotion of the Day of God:

Become as true brethren in the one and indivisible religion of God, free from distinction, for verily God desireth that your hearts should become mirrors unto your brethren in the Faith, so that ye find yourselves reflected in them, and they in you. This is the true Path of God, the Almighty ….34Selections from the Writings of the Báb, 56.

To a British physician who treated Him for injuries inflicted during his interrogation in Tabríz, the Báb expressed His confidence that, in time, Westerners, too, would embrace the truth of His mission.

This theme is powerfully taken up in the work of Bahá’u’lláh. A series of tablets called on such European rulers as Queen Victoria, Napoleon III, Kaiser Wilhelm I, and Tsar Alexander II to examine dispassionately the Cause of God. The British monarch is warmly commended for the actions of her government in abolishing slavery throughout the empire and for the establishment of constitutional government. Perhaps the most extraordinary theme the letters contain is a summons, a virtual mandate to the Rulers of America and the Presidents of the Republics therein. They are called on to bind … the broken with the hands of justice and to crush the oppressor who flourisheth with the rod of the commandments of their Lord.35Bahá’u’lláh, The Kitáb-i-Aqdas, para. 88.

Anticipating the decisive contribution which Western lands and peoples are destined to make in founding the institutions of world order, Bahá’u’lláh wrote:

In the East the Light of His Revelation hath broken; in the West have appeared the signs of His dominion. Ponder this in your hearts, O people ….36Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1988), 13.

It was on ‘Abdu’l-Bahá that responsibility devolved to lay the foundations for this distinctive feature of the missions of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh. Visiting both Western Europe and North America in the years 1911–1913, He coupled high praise for the material accomplishments of the West with an urgent appeal that they be balanced with the essentials of spiritual civilization.

During the years of World War I, after returning to the Holy Land, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá drafted a series of letters addressed to the small body of Bahá’u’lláh’s followers in the United States and Canada, summoning them to arise and carry the Bahá’í message to the remotest corners of the globe. As soon as international conditions permitted, these Bahá’ís began to respond. Their example has since been followed by members of the many other Bahá’í communities around the world which have proliferated during subsequent decades.

To the North American believers, too, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá confided the task of laying the foundations of the democratically elected institutions conceived by Bahá’u’lláh for the administration of the affairs of the Bahá’í community. The entire decision-making structure of the present-day administrative system of the Faith at local, national, and international levels, had its origins in these simple consultative assemblies formed by the American and Canadian believers.

Bahá’ís see a parallel pattern of response to the Divine mandate, however unrecognized, in the growing leadership Western nations have assumed throughout the present century in the efforts to bring about global peace. This is particularly true of the endeavor to inaugurate a system of international order. For his own vision in this respect, as well as for the lonely courage that the effort to realize it required, the immortal Woodrow Wilson won an enduring place of honor in the writings of the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith.

Bahá’ís are likewise aware that it has been such governments as those of Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia which have taken the lead in the field of human rights. The Bahá’í community has experienced at first hand the benefits of this concern in the successful interventions undertaken on behalf of its members in Iran during the recurrent persecutions under the regimes of the Pahlavi shahs and the Islamic Republic.

Nothing of what has been said should suggest an uncritical admiration of European or North American cultures on the part of either the Báb or Bahá’u’lláh nor an endorsement of the ideological foundations on which they rest. Far otherwise. Bahá’u’lláh warns in ominous tones of the suffering and ruin that will be visited upon the entire human race if Western civilization continues on its course of excess. During His visits to Europe and America, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá called on His hearers in poignant language to free themselves, while time still remained, from racial and national prejudices, as well as materialistic preoccupations, whose unappreciated dangers, He said, threatened the future of their nations and of all humankind.

Today, a century and a half after the Báb’s mission was inaugurated, the influence of His life and words has found expression in a global community drawn from every background on earth. The first act of most Bahá’í pilgrims on their arrival at the World Centre of their Faith is to walk up the flower-bordered avenue leading to the exquisite Shrine housing the Báb’s mortal remains, and to lay their foreheads on the threshold of His resting place. They confidently believe that, in future years, pilgrim kings will reverently ascend the magnificent terraced staircase rising from the foot of the Mountain of God to the Shrine’s entrance, and place the emblems of their authority at this same threshold. In the countries from which the pilgrims come, countless children from every background and every language today bear the names of the Báb’s martyred companions—Tahirih, Quddús, Husayn, Zaynab, Vahid, Anís— much as children throughout the lands of the Roman empire began 2,000 years ago to carry the unfamiliar Hebrew names of the disciples of Jesus Christ.

Bahá’u’lláh’s choice of a resting place for the body of His Forerunner—brought with infinite difficulty from Persia—itself holds great significance for the Bahá’í world. Throughout history the blood of martyrs has been the seed of faith. In the age that is witnessing the gradual unification of humankind, the blood of the Bábí martyrs has become the seed not merely of personal faith, but of the administrative institutions which are, in the words of Shoghi Effendi, the nucleus and the very pattern of the World Order conceived by Bahá’u’lláh. The relationship is symbolized by the supreme position that the Shrine of the Báb occupies in the progressive development of the administrative center of the Bahá’í Faith on Mount Carmel.

Few there must be among the stream of Bahá’í pilgrims entering these majestic surroundings today whose minds do not turn to the familiar words in which the Báb said farewell 150 years ago to the handful of His first followers, all of them bereft of influence or wealth and most of them destined, as He was, soon to lose their lives:

The secret of the Day that is to come is now concealed. It can neither be divulged nor estimated. The newly born babe of that Day excels the wisest and most venerable men of this time, and the lowliest and most unlearned of that period shall surpass in understanding the most erudite and accomplished divines of this age. Scatter throughout the length and breadth of this land, and, with steadfast feet and sanctified hearts, prepare the way for His coming. Heed not your weaknesses and frailty; fix your gaze upon the invincible power of the Lord, your God, the Almighty. … Arise in His name, put your trust wholly in Him, and be assured of ultimate victory.37The Dawn-breakers, 94.

By Roger White

It is little known in the West among students and adherents of the Baha’i Faith that Bahá’u’lláh addressed Himself to the public press. It is necessary to set aside squeamishness to depict the circumstances which brought about His doing so. A spring day in Yazd, a Persian city dating from the fifth century, the seat of numerous mosques, an important centre for the production of silk carpets. It was the 19th of May, 1891. Exhilarated by the violence it had witnessed, the excited mob called for the shedding of more blood of the hated Bahá’ís. Only two victims remained, young brothers in their early twenties. Already the crowd had been treated to a thrilling spectacle. A young man of twenty-seven, ‘Ali-Asghar, had been strangled and his body dragged through the streets to the accompaniment of drums and trumpets. Then Mullá Mihdí, a man in his eighty-fifth year, had been beheaded and his corpse hauled in similar manner to another quarter of the city where a considerable throng of onlookers, their frenzy mounting with the music, witnessed the decapitation of Áqá ‘Alí, the youthful brother-in-law of the two young men who had thus far escaped harm. From there the people rushed to yet another sector of Yazd where they relished the sight of Mullá ‘Alíy-i-Sabzivárí having his throat slashed. They then fell upon his body, hacking it to pieces with a spade while he was still alive, and pounded his skull to a pulp with stones. At the moment he was seized he had been addressing the tumultuous gathering, exhorting them to recognize the truth of the New Day, fully aware of his imminent martyrdom and glorying in it. Then, in yet another quarter, the townsfolk rejoiced in slaying Muḥammad-Báqir. It is reasonable to feel compassion far this rabble. Theirs was a profound and manipulable ignorance easily inflamed by fanatical rhetoric and capable, with encouragement from figures of authority, of finding expression in acts of depravity and barbarism. The calculating would be among them—those with vested interests, fearful of loss of power and office—and ruffians and idle thrill-seekers; but no doubt many of their number were utterly convinced that their actions were meritorious in the sight of God, would win the approval of His Prophet and priests, and secure their position in the all-important afterlife. And so their sincere devotion led them to participate in these murders of supposed enemies of the established order. It is a classic example of what scholars of the phenomenon call ‘enantiodromea’, the principle by which any extreme—even virtue—if pushed to the limit, grotesquely crosses over into its opposite.

Five had died. But two young men remained and these were to receive the full force of the crowd’s savage fury. The music grew wilder, drowning the shouts of the swirling mob which propelled the youths brutally to the public square, Maydán-i-Khán, where an especially theatrical fate, matched to the mood of the crowd, awaited them.

The youths, sons of Áqá Ḥusayn-i-Káshání, known as Baktáshí, were silk weavers. They had been raised by affectionate parents and had always lived close to the bosom of their family. Everything about them was conventional for that time and place save that they and their parents had embraced the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh. It was this circumstance which brought them to the horrific scene on that spring day in Yazd. The young men, with the five other Bahá’ís whose deaths they had just witnessed, had gathered for a meeting when a surprise raid was conducted on the house and all were carried off. It is said that some ill-disposed neighbours had alerted the authorities. Good citizens, these, for the pogrom had been instigated by the mujtahid of the city, Shaykh Ḥasan-i-Sabzivárí, acting on instructions of the Governor, Jalalu’d-Dawlih, and the slaughter of the victims—sanctioned sport for the Muslim populace—could be averted only by their denial of faith. The seven were, in a caricature of trial, invited to renounce their religion. How can the true believer barter or dissemble? Having spurned the offer, all seven were condemned to death and surrendered to the executioner and the mob who were eager to aid him in his grisly task.

The elder brother, age twenty-three, bore the same name as his friend who had died earlier that day—‘Alí-Aṣghar. He had recently married and was the father of an infant daughter. The younger, Muḥammad-Ḥasan, age twenty-one, has been described by those who knew him as a youth of extreme beauty, delicacy and masculine grace. The official executioner, Afrasiyab, and the chief constable, Mubárak-Khán, had been urged by the Governor to spare Muḥammad-Ḥasan’s life, if possible, by persuading the young man to recant. Were he to do so, he would be welcomed at the residence of the Governor and showered with favours.

‘Alí-Aṣghar was dealt with first. Having swiftly affirmed his refusal to recant, he was beheaded. Then it was his younger brother’s turn. The Governor’s enticement was extended by the constable to the handsome young man from whom it drew an impatient reply: ‘Hurry up! My friends have all preceded me! Do what you are charged to do!’ He was then decapitated. In a burst of showmanship—playing to the cheering crowd—the executioner slit open the boy’s stomach, plucked out the heart, liver and intestines, and held them aloft. This exhibitionist gesture inspired the audience to commit further atrocities. The head of Muḥammad-Ḥasan was impaled on a spear and paraded through the city—again with the accompaniment of music—and suspended on a mulberry tree. The multitude stoned it so viciously that the skull was broken. His body was then cast before the door of his mother’s house. Some women darted from the crowd, danced into the room where the mother sat, and mocked her. Pieces of the boy’s flesh were carried away to be used as a medicament. Then the head of Muḥammad-Ḥasan was attached to the lower part of his body and borne with the remains of the other martyrs to the outskirts of the city where they were pelted with stones and finally thrown into a pit in the plain of Salsabíl.

The elder brother, ‘Alí-Aṣghar, was not spared ignominy. In an especially cruel gesture, the crowd carried his head to the home of his mother and cast it into the room where she sat with her son’s young wife. The mother arose, bathed her son’s head, and set it outside, admonishing her jeering torturers not to attempt to return to her what she had given to God.

The frenzy had at last reached its climax, and now a carnival atmosphere prevailed. The Governor declared a public holiday and by his order the shops were closed. When evening came the city was illuminated and the populace gave itself over to festivities.

The name of the mother of the two young men has not come down to us; we know her only as Umm-i-Shahíd, the mother of the martyr, though she lost more than one member of her family that day. But the magnificence of her gesture will fire the imagination of generations to come. She lived on into the period of the ministry of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and received from Him at least one Tablet extolling her courage and fortitude, and consoling her in her loss. The young widow of ‘Alí-Aṣghar, Sakinih Sultán, chose not to remarry, though she had offers and was urged to do so. Apprised of her plight, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá invited her and her infant daughter, Fáṭimih Ján, to come to the Holy Land where she had the bounty of serving in His household.

Thus all seven lost their lives. It was not, alas, the only occasion upon which a septet of believers was slain in Yazd; similar episodes occurred in July 1955 and as recently as September 1980. There were also many isolated martyrdoms in that city over the years, and an especially devastating upheaval took place in 1903 when many Bahá’ís lost their lives in various ways, including stabbing and axeing, and one even being shot from a cannon by a direct order of Jalal’ud-Dawlih, the Governor. Bahá’u’lláh stigmatized this man—son of Ẓillu’s-Sulṭán ‘The Infernal Tree’, and grandson of Náṣiri’d-Dín Sháh—’The Tyrant of Yazd’.

The deaths of the seven plunged Bahá’u’lláh, then living out the penultimate year of His life in the mansion of Bahjí, into profound grief. The late Hand of the Cause H. M. Balyúzí, in Bahá’u’lláh, the King of Glory, recounts:

When news of the death of the Seven Martyrs of Yazd reached them, it brought great sorrow to Bahá’u’lláh. Ḥájí Mírzá Ḥabíbu’lláh (a great-nephew of the wife of the Báb) writes that for nine days all revelation ceased and no one was admitted into His presence, until on the ninth day they were all summoned. The deep sorrow that surrounded Him . . . was indescribable. He spoke extensively about the Qájárs and their deeds. Afterwards, He mentioned the events of Yazd; thus sternly did the Tongue of Grandeur speak of Jalalu’d-Dawlih and Ẓillu’s-Sulṭán. … Then He said: ‘Do not be sad, do not be downcast, do not let your hearts bleed. The sacred tree of the Cause of God is watered by the blood of the martyrs. A tree, unless watered, does not grow and bear fruit . . .’

Bahá’u’lláh also revealed a Tablet, as yet not fully translated into English, honouring the seven martyrs. Sometimes popularly referred to as the ‘Tablet to The Times’ because of its reference to the most respected and influential newspaper of the day—The Times of London—it is a document of astonishing power. The tone is one of impassioned anguish, the ‘Tongue of Grandeur’ giving divine expression to our human responses, reflecting even our indignation and bewilderment, our sense of outrage and inconsolableness. Specific reference is made to the two young brothers and an unusually full description is given of their torture and martyrdom. The Governor’s offer of protection for the younger man is mentioned and even the sector of the square where the youths died is named. Such atrocities, Baha’u’llah exclaims, have not been witnessed in the past nor will again be seen in future. He describes the mutilating of the bodies, alludes to the reward given to the executioner, the taunting and reviling of the families of the victims, the parading of the head on spear-point through the streets to celebratory musical accompaniment, the lighting of the city by night, the festival air which prevailed. God knows, He laments, what the oppressed innocents suffered.

Then He calls upon the public press of the world—newspapers, in the Bahá’í Revelation are exhorted by Bahá’u’lláh to mirror truth, and all those responsible for their production ‘to be sanctified from malice, passion and prejudice, to be just and fair-minded, to be painstaking in their enquiries, and ascertain all the facts in every situation’—to take note of these happenings, to launch an enquiry, to faithfully record these facts and, in effect, to aid in awakening human consciousness to these sacrifices. The Tablet was not delivered to The Times (nor perhaps was intended to be), but in the following excerpt that newspaper is singled out, it would seem, as representative of the rational spirit of enquiry, of all that is true, praiseworthy and humane in Western thought:

O ‘Times’, O thou endowed with the power of utterance! O dawning place of news! Spend an hour with the oppressed of Irán, and witness how the exemplars of justice and equity are sorely tried beneath the sword of tyrants. Infants have been deprived of milk, and women and children have fallen captive to the lawless. The blood of God’s lovers hath dyed the earth red, and the sighs of His near ones have set the universe ablaze.

O assemblage of rulers, ye are the manifestations of power and might, and the fountainheads of the glory, greatness and authority of God Himself. Gaze upon the plight of the wronged ones. O daysprings of justice, the fierce gales of rancour and hatred have extinguished the lamps of virtue and piety. At dawn, the gentle breeze of divine compassion hath wafted over charred and cast-out bodies, whispering these exalted words: ‘Woe, woe unto you, O people of Irán! Ye have spilled the blood of your own friends and yet remain in ignorance of what ye have done. Should ye become aware of the deeds ye have perpetrated, ye would flee to the desert and bewail your crimes and tyranny.’

O misguided ones, what sin have the little children committed? Hath anyone, in these days, had pity on the dependants of the oppressed? A report hath reached Us that the followers of the Spirit (Christ)—may the peace of God and His mercy be upon Him—secretly sent them provisions and befriended them out of utmost sympathy. We beseech God, the Eternal Truth, to confirm all in accomplishing that which is pleasing to Him.

O newspapers published throughout the cities and countries of the world! Have ye heard the groan of the downtrodden, and have their cries of anguish reached your ears? Or have these remained concealed? It is hoped that ye will investigate the truth of what hath occurred and vindicate it.

In His Ṭarázát, Bahá’u’lláh, Who had, on more than one occasion, been personally slandered and maligned in the press, and His Cause misrepresented in stories fabricated by His avowed enemies, recorded His awareness of inaccurate, perhaps even irresponsible, reporting:

Concerning this Wronged One, most of the things reported in the newspapers are devoid of truth. Fair speech and truthfulness, by reason of their lofty rank and position, are regarded as a sun shining above the horizon of knowledge. The waves rising from this Ocean are apparent before the eyes of the peoples of the world and the effusions of the Pen of wisdom and utterance are manifest everywhere.

It is reported in the press that this Servant hath fled from the land of Ṭá (Ṭihrán) and gone to ‘Iráq. Gracious God! Not even for a single moment hath this Wronged One ever concealed Himself. Rather hath He at all times remained steadfast and conspicuous before the eyes of all men. Never have We retreated, nor shall We ever seek flight. In truth it is the foolish people who flee from Our presence. We left Our home country accompanied by two mounted escorts, representing the two honored governments of Persia and Russia until We arrived in ‘Iráq in the plenitude of glory and power. Praise be to God! The Cause whereof this Wronged One is the Bearer standeth as high as heaven and shineth resplendent as the sun. Concealment hath no access unto this station, nor is there any occasion for fear or silence.

In the same Tablet He extols knowledge and describes the integrity and regard for truth which should govern those who write for newspapers:

Knowledge is one of the wondrous gifts of God. It is incumbent upon everyone to acquire it. Such arts and material means as are now manifest have been achieved by virtue of His knowledge and wisdom which have been revealed in Epistles and Tablets through His Most Exalted Pen—a Pen out of whose treasury pearls of wisdom and utterance and the arts and crafts of the world are brought to light.

In this Day the secrets of the earth are laid bare before the eyes of men. The pages of swiftly-appearing newspapers are indeed the mirror of the world. They reflect the deeds and the pursuits of diverse peoples and kindreds. They both reflect them and make them known. They are a mirror endowed with hearing, sight and speech. This is an amazing and potent phenomenon. However, it behooveth the writers thereof to be purged from the promptings of evil passions and desires and to be attired with the raiment of justice and equity. They should inquire into situations as much as possible and ascertain the facts, then set them down in writing.

Among the indicators that “appear as the outstanding characteristics of a decadent society”, corruption of the press is cited by Shoghi Effendi, together with “the degeneracy of art and music” and the “infection of literature”, in his masterful and succinct analysis in “The Unfoldment of World Civilization”. In that same essay, in sketching the broad outlines of the World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, whose goal is the unification of the planet, he does not fail to mention the lofty and constructive role to be played by a truly free press. “The press will, under such a system,” he writes, “while giving full scope to the expression of the diversified views and convictions of mankind, cease to be mischievously manipulated by vested interests, whether private or public, and will be liberated from the influence of contending governments and peoples.” No “mirror of the world” more dramatically reflects the emergence of the Baha’i Faith from obscurity than the press. With the renewed persecution of the Bahá’ís in the land where the Faith was born—persecution which, despite its instigators’ seeming sole concession to enlightenment in the adoption of polite refinements such as closeted firing squads, private hangings and diabolical, exquisitely designed secret tortures, has the same demonic force and malicious purpose as earlier episodes—the media, and particularly the press of the world, on an unprecedented scale, locally, nationally and internationally, has sympathetically, emphatically, eloquently, insistently and for the most part accurately reported the situation, expressed shock and dismay editorially, striven to alert readers to the gravity of the oppression, condemned its barbarity and demanded its cessation. Among them, it is noted with gratification, is The Times.

By William Hatcher

III. THE COLLECTIVE DIMENSION OF SPIRITUALITY

1. The Social Matrix of Individual Growth

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Unity

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

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

3. Social Evolution; World Order

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. The Bahá’í Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV. SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

By William Hatcher

II. THE PROCESS OF SPIRITUAL GROWTH

1. Prerequisites for Spiritual Growth

Spirituality is the process of the proper development of man’s innate spiritual capacities. But how does this process start and how is it carried on? What is the relationship between spiritual development and other kinds of development processes (e.g. format schooling)? Why do there seem to have been so few people who have thus conceived the purpose of their lives and dedicated themselves to the pursuit of spirituality? Answers to these and other similar questions are given in the Bahá’í Writings, but we need to proceed systematically to gain perspective.

Clearly the prime condition for embarking on the process of spiritual development is the awareness that the process is useful, necessary, and realistically possible: the individual must become fully alert to the objective existence of the spiritual dimension of reality. Since such spiritual realities as God, the soul, and the mind are not directly observable, man has no immediate access to them. He has only indirect access through the observable effects that these spiritual realities may produce. The Bahá’í Writings acknowledge this situation and affirm that the Manifestation (or Prophet) of God is the most important observable reality which gives man access to intangible reality:

The door of the knowledge of the Ancient of Days being thus closed in the face of all beings, the Source of infinite grace …hath caused those luminous Gems of Holiness to appear out of the realm of the spirit, in the noble form of the human temple, and be made manifest unto all men, that they may impart unto the world the mysteries of the unchangeable Being, and tell of the subtleties of His imperishable Essence. These sanctified Mirrors, these Day-springs of ancient glory are one and all the Exponents on earth of Him Who is the central Orb of the universe, its Essence and ultimate Purpose.1Bahá’u’lláh, The Kitáb-Íqán (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Committee, 1954), pp. 99-100.

In another passage, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has said:

The knowledge of the Reality of the Divinity is impossible and unattainable, but the knowledge of the Manifestations of God is the knowledge of God, for the bounties, splendors and divine attributes are apparent in Them. Therefore, if man attains to the knowledge of the Manifestations of God, he will attain to the knowledge of God; and if he be neglectful of the knowledge of the Holy Manifestations, he will be bereft of the knowledge of God.2‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1981), p. 222.

Thus, the Manifestations constitute that part of observable reality which most readily leads man to the knowledge and awareness of the spiritual dimension of existence. Of course, only those living in the lifetime of a Manifestation can observe Him at first hand, but His revelation and His Writings constitute permanent observable realities which enable us to maintain objective content in our beliefs, concepts and practices:

Say: The first and foremost testimony establishing His truth is His own Self. Next to this testimony is His Revelation. For whoso faileth to recognize either the one or the other He hath established the words He hath revealed as proof of His reality and truth.3Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1971), p. 105.

Elsewhere in the Bahá’í Writings, it is explained that everything in observable reality, when properly perceived, reveals some aspect of God, its Creator. However, only a conscious, willing, intelligent being such as man can reflect (to whatever limited degree) the higher aspects of God. The Manifestations of God, being the “most accomplished, the most distinguished, and the most excellent”4Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1971), p. 179. of men, endowed by God with transhuman spiritual capacities, represent the fullest possible expression of the divine in observable reality.

Thus, the first step in the path of spiritual growth is to become as intensely aware as possible of the reality of the spiritual realm of existence. The principle key to such an awareness is knowledge of the Manifestations of God.

 

Indeed, since the Manifestations constitute such a unique link between man and the unseen world of spiritual reality, knowledge of the Manifestations is the foundation of the whole process of spiritual development.5In this regard, Bahá’u’lláh has said: ‘Neither the candle nor the lamp can be lighted through their own unaided efforts, nor can it ever be possible for the mirror to free itself from its dross. It is clear and evident that until a fire is kindled the lamp will never be ignited, and unless the dross is blotted out from the face of the mirror it can never represent the image of the sun nor reflect its light and glory.’ Gleanings, p. 66. He goes on to point out that the necessary ‘fire’ and ‘light’ are transmitted from God to man through the Manifestations. This is not to say that real spiritual progress cannot take place before one recognizes and accepts the Manifestation.6

In one of His works, Bahá’u’lláh describes the stage leading up to the acceptance of the Manifestations as ‘the valley of search.’ It is a period during which one thinks deeply about the human condition, seeks answers to penetrating questions, and sharpens and develops one’s capacities in preparation for their full use. It is a period of increasing restlessness and impatience with ignorance and injustice.
However, the Bahá’í Writings do affirm that in order to progress beyond a certain level on the path of spirituality, knowledge of the Manifestation is essential. Sooner or later (in this world or the next), knowledge and acceptance of the Manifestation must occur in the life of each individual.

The question naturally arises as to what step or steps follow the recognition of the Manifestation. Here again Bahá’u’lláh is quite clear and emphatic:

The first duty prescribed by God for His servants is the recognition of Him Who is the Day Spring of His Revelation and the Fountain of His laws, Who representeth the Godhead in both the Kingdom of His Cause and the world of creation. Whoso achieveth this duty hath attained unto all good; and whoso is deprived thereof, hath gone astray, though he be the author of every righteous deed. It behoveth every one who reacheth this most sublime station, this summit of transcendent glory, to observe every ordinance of Him Who is the Desire of the world. These twin duties are inseparable. Neither is acceptable without the other.7Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1971), pp. 330-331.

Thus, even though the recognition of the Manifestation is described as equal to “all good,” recognition alone is not a sufficient basis for spiritual growth. The effort to conform oneself to the standards of behavior, thought, and attitude expressed by the various laws ordained by the Manifestation is also an intrinsic, inseparable part of the8Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá stress that mankind has undergone a collective process of evolution by which it has now arrived at the threshold of maturity. God now requires more of man, in particular that he assume responsibility for the process of self-development: ‘For in this holy Dispensation, the crowning of bygone ages, and cycles, true Faith is no mere acknowledgement of the Unity of God, but the living of a life that will manifest all the perfections implied in such belief.’ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Divine Art of Living (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1974), p. 25.   process. The idea that great effort is necessary to the prosecution of the spiritual growth process occurs throughout the Bahá’í Writings:

The incomparable Creator hath created all men from one same substance, and hath exalted their reality above the rest of His creatures. Success or failure, gain or loss, must, therefore, depend upon man’s own exertions. The more he striveth, the greater will be his progress.9Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1971), pp. 81-82.

Know thou that all men have been created in the nature made by God, the Guardian, the Self-Subsisting. Unto each one hath been prescribed a pre-ordained measure, as decreed in God’s mighty and guarded Tablets. All that which ye potentially possess can, however, be manifested only as a result of your own volition.10Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1971), p. 149.

… He hath entrusted every created thing with a sign of His knowledge, so that none of His creatures may be deprived of its share in expressing, each according to its capacity and rank, this knowledge. This sign is the mirror of His beauty in the world of creation. The greater the effort exerted for the refinement of this sublime and noble mirror, the more faithfully will it be made to reflect the glory of the names and attributes of God, and reveal the wonders of His signs and knowledge. …

There can be no doubt whatever that, in consequence of the efforts which every man may consciously exert and as a result of the exertion of his own spiritual faculties, this mirror can be so cleansed …as to be able to draw nigh unto the meads of eternal holiness and attain the courts of everlasting fellowship.11Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1971), p. 262.

Personal effort is indeed a vital prerequisite to the recognition and acceptance of the Cause of God. No matter how strong the measure of Divine grace, unless supplemented by personal, sustained and intelligent effort it cannot become fully effective and be of any real and abiding advantage.12Shoghi Effendi in The Bahá’í Life (Toronto: National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Canada, undated), p. 6.

This last statement, from Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith from 1921 until his death in 1957, makes clear that recognition of and faith in the Manifestation of God are not simply unidirectional “gifts” from God to man. Rather, both involve a reciprocal relationship requiring an intelligent and energetic response on the part of the individual. Nor is true faith based on any irrational or psychopathological impulse.13See ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Bahá’í World Faith, 2nd ed. (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1956), pp. 382-383, where faith is defined to be conscious knowledge: “By faith is meant, first, conscious knowledge, and second, the practice of good deeds.” Of course, whenever man gains knowledge which contradicts his preconceived notions, he experiences inner conflict and may therefore initially perceive the new knowledge (and thus the new faith) as irrational in that it contradicts what he previously assumed to be true. But this initial perception is gradually overcome as continued experience further confirms the new knowledge, finally leading to an integration of the new with whatever was correct and healthy in the old. But this model of faith stands in significant contrast to the widely-held view that religious faith is essentially or fundamentally irrational (and blind) in its very nature.

 

2. The Nature of the Process

We have seen how the spiritual growth process may begin by acceptance of the Manifestation and obedience to his laws and principles. We need now to gain a measure of understanding of the nature of the process itself.

We have characterized spiritual growth as an educational process of a particular sort for which the individual assumes responsibility and by which he learns to feel, think, and act in certain appropriate ways. It is a process through which the individual eventually becomes the truest expression of what he has always potentially been.

Let us consider several further quotations from the Bahá’í Writings which confirm this view of the spiritual growth process.

Whatever duty Thou hast prescribed unto Thy servants of extolling to the utmost Thy majesty and glory is but a token of Thy grace unto them, that they may be enabled to ascend unto the station conferred upon their own inmost being, the station of the knowledge of their own selves.14Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1971), pp. 4-5.

Here the “duties” which God has prescribed for man are seen not as ends in themselves but rather as “tokens,” in other words, as symbols for and means towards another, ultimate end. This end is characterized as being a particular kind of knowledge, here called self-knowledge.

In the following, Bahá’u’lláh speaks similarly of self-knowledge:

O My servants! Could ye apprehend with what wonders of My munificence and bounty I have willed to entrust your souls, ye would, of a truth, rid yourselves of attachment to all created things, and would gain a true knowledge of your own selves—a knowledge which is the same as the comprehension of Mine own Being.15Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1971), pp. 326-327.

One significant aspect of this passage is that true knowledge of self is identified with knowledge of God. That knowledge of God is identical with the fundamental purpose of life for the individual is clearly stated by Bahá’u’lláh in numerous passages. For example:

The purpose of God in creating man hath been, and will ever be, to enable him to know his Creator and to attain His Presence. To this most excellent aim, this supreme objective, all the heavenly Books and the divinely-revealed and weighty Scriptures unequivocally bear witness.16Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1971), p. 70. See also note 9.

Thus, while acceptance of the Manifestation of God and obedience to His ordinances is a necessary step which each individual must accomplish at some point in the spiritual growth process, these and other such duties are means to an ultimate end which is described as true self-knowledge. This quality of self-knowledge is equated with knowledge of God, and knowledge of God is considered by Bahá’u’lláh as constituting the essential reason for man’s existence.

All of this would seem to say that religion, in the final analysis, represents a cognitive discipline of some sort. But what kind of cognitive discipline could involve the full development of all of man’s spiritual capacities, and not just the mind? What kind of knowledge is meant by the true knowledge of self and how can such knowledge be tantamount to knowledge of God?

Bahá’u’lláh gives the key to answering these important questions in an explicit statement clearly describing the highest form of knowledge and development accessible to man:

Consider the rational faculty with which God hath endowed the essence of man. Examine thine own self, and behold how thy motion and stillness, thy will and purpose, thy sight and hearing, thy sense of smell and power of speech, and whatever else is related to, or transcendeth, thy physical senses or spiritual perceptions, all proceed from, and owe their existence to, this same faculty. …

 

Wert thou to ponder in thine heart, from now until the end that hath no end, and with all the concentrated intelligence and understanding which the greatest minds have attained in the past or will attain in the future, this divinely ordained and subtle Reality, this sign of the revelation of the All-Abiding, All-Glorious God, thou wilt fail to comprehend its mystery or to appraise its virtue. Having recognized thy powerlessness to attain to an adequate understanding of that Reality which abideth within thee, thou wilt readily admit the futility of such efforts as may be attempted by thee, or by any of the created things, to fathom the mystery of the Living God, the Day Star of unfading glory, the Ancient of everlasting days. This confession of helplessness which mature contemplation must eventually impel every mind to make is in itself the acme of human understanding, and marketh the culmination of man’s development.17Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1971), pp. 164-165.

This passage seems to indicate that the ultimate form of knowledge available to man is represented by his total awareness of certain limitations which are inherent in his very nature or at least in the fundamental relationship between his nature and the phenomena of existence (including his own being and that of God). In particular, man must assimilate in some profound way the truth that the absolute knowledge of God and even of his own self lie forever beyond his reach. His realization of this truth is consequent to his having made a profound and accurate appraisal of his God-created capacities and potentialities. Thus, in the last analysis, true self-knowledge appears as a deep and mature knowledge of both the limitations and the capacities of the self. Let us recall that attaining to this knowledge is said to require strenuous effort on the part of man and to involve the development of “all the potential forces with which his inmost true self hath been endowed.”18Also quoted in Section 1.2. Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1971), p. 68.

To gain a broader perspective on this question, let us compare the self-knowledge described here with human knowledge in general, hoping that such a comparison will help us to understand more clearly what is particular to true self-knowledge. In general terms, a “knowing situation” involves a subjectivity (in this case that of man), some phenomenon which is the object of knowledge, and finally those means and resources which the subject can mobilize in order to obtain the understanding he seeks. If we agree to lump these last aspects of the knowing process under the general term “method,” we arrive at the following schema:

Quite clearly, the knowledge which is ultimately obtained from this process will depend on all three fundamental aspects of the knowing situation. It will depend on the nature of the phenomenon being studied (e.g., whether it is easily observable and accessible, whether it is complex or simple), on both the capacities and limitations of the knowing subject, and on the method used. In particular, the knowledge which results from this process will necessarily be relative and limited unless the knowing subject possesses some infallible method of knowledge. In this regard, it is important to note that the Bahá’í Writings stress repeatedly that human beings (other than the Manifestations) have no such infallible method of knowledge and that human understanding of all things is therefore relative and limited.19It is interesting that modern science and modern scientific philosophy take essentially the same view of human knowledge. I have elsewhere treated this theme at some length (see Bahá’í Studies, vol. 2, ‘The Science of Religion,’ 1980), but will not enter into the discussion of such questions here.

For example, in a talk given at Green Acre near Eliot, Maine in 1912, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá discusses the different criteria “by which the human mind reaches its conclusions.”20He explicitly mentions sense experience, reason, inspiration or intuition, and scriptural authority.  After a discussion of each criterion, showing why it is fallible and relative, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá states: “Consequently, it has become evident that the four criteria or standards of judgement by which the human mind reaches its conclusions are faulty and inaccurate.” He then proceeds to explain that the best man can do is to use systematically all of the criteria at his disposal.21‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1982), pp. 253-255.

In another passage, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá affirms:

Knowledge is of two kinds. One is subjective and the other objective knowledge—that is to say, an intuitive knowledge and a knowledge derived from perception.

The knowledge of things which men universally have is gained by reflection or by evidence—that is to say, either by the power of the mind the conception of an object is formed, or from beholding an object the form is produced in the mirror of the heart. The circle of this knowledge is very limited because it depends upon effort and attainment.22‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1981), p. 157.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá then explains that the first kind of knowledge, that which is subjective and intuitive, is the special consciousness of the Manifestations: “Since the Sanctified Realities, the supreme Manifestations of God, surround the essence and qualities of the creatures, transcend and contain existing realities and understand all things, therefore, Their knowledge is divine knowledge, and not acquired—that is to say, it is a holy bounty; it is a divine revelation.”23Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1981), pp. 157-158.

Here again we see that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá expresses the limited character of all human knowledge (in contrast to the unlimited knowledge of the Manifestations deriving from their special superhuman nature). In yet another passage ‘Abdu’l-Bahá puts the matter thus:

Know that there are two kinds of knowledge: the knowledge of the essence of a thing and the knowledge of its qualities. The essence of a thing is known through its qualities; otherwise, it is unknown and hidden.

As our knowledge of things, even of created and limited things, is knowledge of their qualities and not of their essence, how is it possible to comprehend in its essence the Divine Reality, which is unlimited?

… Knowing God, therefore, means the comprehension and the knowledge of His attributes, and not of His Reality. This knowledge of the attributes is also proportioned to the capacity and power of man; it is not absolute.24Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1981), pp. 220-221.

It would seem clear from these and other similar passages from the Bahá’í Writings that whatever distinctive characteristics the true knowledge of self (or, equivalently, the knowledge of God) may have, it does not differ from other forms of knowledge with regard to degree of certainty. It is not less certain than other forms of knowledge since all human knowledge (including the knowledge of God and of “created and limited things”) is relative and limited. Nor does it differ from these other forms of knowledge by being more certain, as is clear from the passage above and from the passages of Bahá’u’lláh previously cited.25Some mystics and religious philosophers have contended that our knowledge of God is absolute and for that reason superior to the relative and limited knowledge obtained by science. Such thinkers offer mysticism as an alternative discipline to science. It is important to realize that the Bahá’í Faith does not lend support to such a view. In particular, concerning the inherent limitations of the individual’s intuitive powers, however disciplined and well-developed. Shoghi Effendi has said: “With regard to your question as to the value of intuition as a source of guidance for the individual; implicit faith in our intuitive powers is unwise, but through daily prayer and sustained effort one can discover, though not always and fully, God’s Will intuitively. Under no circumstances, however, can a person be absolutely certain that he is recognizing God’s Will, through the exercise of his intuition. It often happens that the latter results in completely misrepresenting the truth, and thus becomes a source of error rather than of guidance …”

However, if we compare knowledge of God with other forms of knowledge, not from the point of view of degrees of certainty, but rather from the standpoint of the relationship between man as knowing subject on the one hand, and the phenomenon which is the object of study on the other, we can immediately see that there is a tremendous difference. In all sciences and branches of knowledge other than religion, the object of study is a phenomenon which is either inferior to man in complexity and subtlety (in the case of physics and chemistry) or on a level with man (in the case of biology, psychology, and sociology). In either case, for each of these sciences the human knower is in a position of relative dominance or superiority which enables him to manipulate to a significant degree the phenomenon being studied. We can successfully use these phenomena as instruments for our purposes. But when we come to knowledge of God, we suddenly find ourselves confronted with a phenomenon which is superior to us and which we cannot manipulate. Many of the reflexes and techniques learned in studying other phenomena no longer apply. Far from learning how to manipulate God, we must learn how to discern expressions of God’s will for us and respond adequately to them. It is we who must now become (consciously acquiescing) instruments for God’s26In particular, the Manifestations of God represent objective and universally accessible expressions of God’s will. Humanity’s interaction with the Manifestations provides an important opportunity to experience completely a phenomenon which man cannot manipulate or dominate. The Manifestations likewise provide a challenge to each individual’s capacity to respond adequately to the divine will. purposes.

Viewed in this perspective, the distinctive characteristic of knowing God, as compared with all other forms of human knowledge, is that the human knower is in a position of inferiority with respect to the object of knowledge. Rather than encompassing and dominating the phenomenon by aggressive and manipulative techniques, man is now encompassed by a phenomenon more powerful than himself.

Perhaps, then, one of the deep meanings of the true knowledge of self (which is equivalent to the knowledge of God) that we are here confronted with the task of learning novel, and initially unnatural, patterns of thought, feeling, and action. We must retrain ourselves in a wholly new way. We must not only understand our position of dependence on God, but also integrate that understanding into our lives until it becomes part of us, and indeed until it becomes us, an expression of what we are.

In other words, the full, harmonious, and proper development of our spiritual capacities means developing these capacities so that we may respond ever more adequately, and with increasing sensitivity and nuance, to the will of God: The process of spiritual growth is the process by which we learn how to conform ourselves to the divine will on ever deeper levels of our being.27Another important dimension of spirituality is service to the collectivity. The development of one’s spiritual and material capacities makes one a more valuable servant. More will be said about this in a later section.

From this viewpoint, conscious dependence upon God and obedience to His will is not a capitulation of individual responsibility, a sort of helpless “giving up,” but rather an assumption of an even greater degree of responsibility and self-control. We must learn through deep self-knowledge, how to be responsive to the spirit of God.

The ability to respond to God in such a whole-hearted, deeply intelligent and sensitive way is not part of the natural gift of any human being. What is naturally given to us is the capacity, the potential to attain to such a state. Its actual achievement, however, is consequent only to a persistent and strenuous effort on our part. The fact that such effort, and indeed suffering, are necessary to attain this state of spirituality makes life often difficult.28Concerning the necessity of such suffering in the pursuit of spirituality, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has said: “Everything of importance in this world demands the close attention of its seeker. The one in pursuit of anything must undergo difficulties and hardships until the object in view is attained and the great success is obtained. This is the case of things pertaining to the world. How much higher is that which concerns the Supreme Concourse!” Divine Art of Living, p. 92.  But the fact that it is truly possible makes of life a spiritual adventure a hundredfold more exciting than any other physical or romantic adventure could ever possibly be.

George Townshend, a Bahá’í renowned for the spiritual quality of his personal life, has given a description of this state of spiritual-mindedness. One senses that Townshend’s statement is based on deep personal experience as well as intelligent contemplation:

When the veils of illusion which hide a man’s own heart from himself are drawn aside, when after purgation he comes to himself and attains self-knowledge and sees himself as he truly is, then at the same moment and by the same act of knowledge he beholds there in his own heart His Father who has patiently awaited His son’s return.

Only through this act of self-completion, through this conclusion of the journey which begins in the kingdom of the senses and leads inward through the kingdom of the moral to end in that of the spiritual, does real happiness become possible. Now for the first time a man’s whole being can be integrated, and a harmony of all his faculties be established. Through his union with the Divine Spirit he has found the secret of the unifying of his own being. He who is the Breath of Joy becomes the animating principle of his existence. Man knows the Peace of God.29George Townshend, The Mission of Bahá’u’lláh (Oxford: George Ronald, 1952), pp. 99-100.

One of Bahá’u’lláh’s major works, The Book of Certitude, is largely devoted to a detailed explanation of the way in which God has provided for the education of mankind through the periodic appearance in human history of a God-sent Manifestation or Revelator. At one point in His discussion of these questions, Bahá’u’lláh gives a wonderfully explicit description of the steps and stages involved in the individual’s progress towards full spiritual development. This portion of The Book of Certitude has become popularly known among Bahá’ís as the “Tablet to the True Seeker,” although Bahá’u’lláh does not Himself designate the passage by this or any other appellation.

In general terms, a “true seeker” is anyone who has become aware of the objective existence of the spiritual dimension of reality, has realized that spiritual growth and development constitute the basic purpose of existence, and has sincerely and seriously embarked on the enterprise of fostering his spiritual progress. It is quite clear from the context of the passage that Bahá’u’lláh is primarily addressing those who have already reached the stage of accepting the Manifestation of God and obeying His commandments.

Bahá’u’lláh begins by describing in considerable detail the attitudes, thought patterns, and behavior patterns that characterize a true seeker. He mentions such things as humility, abstention from backbiting and vicious criticism of others, kindness and helpfulness to those who are poor or otherwise in need, and the regular practice of the discipline of prayer and of meditation. He concludes this description by saying “These are among the attributes of the exalted, and constitute the hall-mark of the spiritually-minded …When the detached wayfarer and sincere seeker hath fulfilled these essential conditions, then and only then can he be called a true seeker.”30Bahá’u’lláh, The Kitáb-Íqán (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Committee, 1954), p. 195. He then continues by describing both the quality of effort necessary to the attainment of spirituality and the state of being which this attainment secures to the individual:

Only when the lamp of search, of earnest striving, of longing desire, of passionate devotion, of fervid love, of rapture, and ecstasy, is kindled within the seeker’s heart, and the breeze of His loving-kindness is wafted upon his soul, will the darkness of error be dispelled, the mists of doubts and misgivings be dissipated, and the lights of knowledge and certitude envelop his being. At that hour will the mystic Herald, bearing the joyful tidings of the Spirit, shine forth from the City of God resplendent as the morn, and, through the trumpet-blast of knowledge, will awaken the heart, the soul, and the spirit from the slumber of negligence. Then will the manifold favors and outpouring grace of the holy and everlasting Spirit confer such new life upon the seeker that he will find himself endowed with a new eye, a new ear, a new heart, and a new mind. He will contemplate the manifest signs of the universe, and will penetrate the hidden mysteries of the soul. Gazing with the eye of God, he will perceive within every atom a door that leadeth him to the stations of absolute certitude. He will discover in all things the mysteries of divine Revelation and the evidences of an everlasting manifestation.31Bahá’u’lláh, The Kitáb-Íqán (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Committee, 1954), pp. 195-196. Bahá’u’lláh’s reference in the passage to ‘absolute certitude’ might be perceived at first as contradicting the strong statements regarding the limitations on human knowledge which we have earlier quoted. However, this superficial perception is relieved when we reflect that ‘certitude’ refers to a (psychological) state of being whereas the notion of ‘degree of certainty’ (and in particular the question of whether knowledge is relative or absolute) is concerned rather with the criteria of verification available to man as knowing subject. Thus, Bahá’u’lláh would seem to be saying that man can attain to a sense of absolute certitude even though his criteria of verification, and thus his knowledge, remain limited. Also, it is clear that such phrases as ‘the eye of God’ should be taken metaphorically and not literally. This metaphor, together with other such phrases as ‘new life’ and ‘absolute certitude,’ convey a strong sense of the discontinuity between the respective degrees of understanding possessed by the individual before and after his attainment of true self-knowledge.

Nor should the achievement of such a degree of spiritual development be considered an ideal, static configuration from which no further change or development is possible, as the following two passages from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá make clear:

As the divine bounties are endless, so human perfections are endless. If it were possible to reach a limit of perfection, then one of the realities of the beings might reach the condition of being independent of God, and the contingent might attain to the condition of the absolute. But for every being there is a point which it cannot overpass—that is to say, he who is in the condition of servitude, however far he may progress in gaining limitless perfections, will never reach the condition of Deity. …

For example, Peter cannot become Christ. All that he can do is, in the condition of servitude, to attain endless perfections …32‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1981), pp. 230-231.

Both before and after putting off this material form, there is progress in perfection but not in state…. There is no other being higher than a perfect man. But man when he has reached this state can still make progress in perfections but not in state because there is no state higher than that of a perfect man to which he can transfer himself. He only progresses in the state of humanity, for the human perfections are infinite. Thus, however learned a man may be, we can imagine one more learned.

Hence, as the perfections of humanity are endless, man can also make progress in perfections after leaving this world.33‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1981), p. 237.

3. The Dynamics of the Spiritual Growth Process

After contemplating Bahá’u’lláh’s description of the state of being resulting from the attainment of true self- knowledge, it would be only natural to wish that this state could be achieved instantaneously, perhaps through some supreme gesture of self-renunciation, or whatever. However, the Writings of the Bahá’í Faith make it plain that this is not possible. By its very nature, true spirituality is something which can only be achieved as the result of a certain self-aware and self- responsible process of development.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá often responded to Bahá’ís who felt overwhelmed by the task of refining their character by stressing the necessity of patience and daily striving. “Be patient, be as I am,” He would say.34The Dynamic Force of Example (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1974), p. 50. Spirituality was to be won “little by little; day by day.”35The Dynamic Force of Example (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1974), p. 51. And again:

He is a true Bahá’í who strives by day and by night to progress and advance along the path of human endeavor, whose most cherished desire is to live and act as to enrich and illuminate the world, whose source of inspiration is the essence of Divine virtue, whose aim in life is so to conduct himself as to be the cause of infinite progress. Only when he attains unto such perfect gifts can it be said of him that he is a true Bahá’í.36Divine Art of Living (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1974), p. 25.

This last passage in particular would seem to indicate that one of the signs of an individual’s maturity is his acceptance of the gradual nature of the process of spiritual growth and of the necessity for daily striving. Indeed, psychology has established that one important measure of maturity is the capacity to delay gratification, i.e., to work for goals whose attainment is not to be had in the short term. Since spirituality is the highest and most important goal anyone can possibly have, it is natural that its achievement should call forth the greatest possible maturity on the part of the individual.37This point of view on spirituality is in sharp contrast with the viewpoint found in many contemporary cults and sects which stress instant gratification and irresponsibility in the name of honesty and spontaneity.

In a similar vein, Shoghi Effendi has said that the Bahá’ís:

… should not look at the depraved condition of the society in which they live, nor at the evidences of moral degradation and frivolous conduct which the people around them display. They should not content themselves merely with relative distinction and excellence. Rather they should fix their gaze upon nobler heights by setting the counsels and exhortations of the Pen of Glory as their supreme goal. Then it will be readily realized how numerous are the stages that still remain to be traversed and how far off the desired goal lies—a goal which is none other than exemplifying heavenly morals and virtues.38The Bahá’í Life (Toronto: National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Canada, undated), p. 2.

In describing the experience of the individual as he progresses towards this goal, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has said: “Know thou, verily, there are many veils in which the Truth is enveloped; gloomy veils; then delicate and transparent veils; then the envelopment of Light, the sight of which dazzles the eyes. …”39Divine Art of Living (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1974), p. 51. Indeed, one of Bahá’u’lláh’s major works, The Seven Valleys, describes in poetic and powerfully descriptive language the different stages of spiritual perception through which an individual may pass in his efforts to attain to the goal of spirituality.40Bahá’u’lláh, The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Committee, rev. ed., 1954). In the Tablet of Wisdom, Bahá`u’lláh says simply: “Let each morn be better than its eve and each morrow richer than its yesterday.”41Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh (Haifa, Israel: compiled by the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice, 1978), p. 138. Elsewhere, Bahá’u’lláh has urged man to live in such a way that each day his faith increases over the previous day. All of these passages strongly reinforce the notion that spirituality is to be won only through a gradual process and is not to be attained by any once-and-for-all act of faith.

We want now to understand the dynamics of this process. How do we even take one step forward? Also, we need to understand how a gradual process can produce a change as radical as that described by Bahá’u’lláh in the passage quoted in the previous section (see note 41).

The answer to this last consideration is that the rate of change produced by the process is not constant. In technical language, the process is exponential and not linear. To say that a growth process is linear means that the rate of growth is unchanging. In an exponential process, on the other hand, the rate of growth is very small in the beginning but gradually increases until a sort of saturation point is reached. When this point is passed, the rate of growth becomes virtually infinite, and the mechanism of the process becomes virtually automatic. There is, so to speak, an “explosion” of progress.42In an exponential process, the rate of growth at any given stage of the process is directly proportional to the total growth attained at that stage. Thus, as the process develops and progress is made, the rate of progress increases. An example would be a production process such that the total amount produced at any given stage is double the total amount produced at the previous stage (imagine a reproduction process in which bacteria double each second, starting with one bacterium). Since the double of a large number represents a much greater increase than the double of a small number, doubling is an example of an exponential law of progress. As we examine the dynamics of the process of spiritual development we will see precisely how the exponential nature of the process can be concretely understood. Let us turn, then, to an examination of these dynamics.

The main problem is to understand how the various capacities of the individual—mind, heart, and will—are to interact in order to produce a definite step forward in the path towards full development. Basic to our understanding of this obviously complex interaction are two important points that Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá both stress regarding the growth process. The first is that no one faculty acting alone is sufficient to produce results.43Bahá’u’lláh has stressed that the merit of all deeds is dependent upon God’s acceptance (cf. A Synopsis and Codification of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas of Bahá’u’lláh, [Haifa, Israel: the Universal House of Justice, 1973], p. 52), and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has said that “good actions alone, without the knowledge of God, cannot be the cause of eternal salvation, everlasting access, and prosperity, and entrance into the Kingdom of God.’ Some Answered Questions, p. 238. On the other hand, knowledge without action is also declared to be unacceptable: ’Mere knowledge of principles is not sufficient. We all know and admit that justice is good but there is need of volition and action to carry out and manifest it.” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Foundations of World Unity (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1945). p, 26. At the same time, love and sincere good intentions alone are also insufficient for spiritual progress, for they need to be guided by knowledge and wisdom and expressed through action. Moreover, without true self-knowledge we may sometimes mistake physical attraction or self-centered emotional need as love and act upon it with negative results. The second point is that there is a hierarchical relationship between these faculties in which knowledge is first, love is second, and will is third. Let us discuss each of these points in turn.

As we have seen in Section 1 on the nature of man, each individual has certain basic, innate spiritual capacities, but in a degree and in a proportion which are unique to him. Moreover, the initial development of these innate capacities takes place under conditions over which the individual has very little control (e.g., the conditions of the family into which he is born, the social and physical surroundings to which he is exposed). An important consequence of this universal, existential situation is that each one of us arrives at the threshold of adulthood having developed a more or less spontaneous and unexamined pattern of responses to life situations. This pattern, unique to each individual, is an expression of his basic personality at that stage of his development.44At this point in our development, it is difficult if not impossible to know how much of our mode of functioning is due to our innate qualities and how much is due to the cumulative influence of external conditions. Thus, our spontaneous response pattern may be a reasonably authentic expression of our true selves or it may contain significant distortions. It is only by moving on to the next stage of self-aware, self-directed growth that we can gain insight into this question.

Given the limited and relative nature of our innate spiritual capacities as well as the conditions under which they will have developed up to this point in our lives, our personal response pattern will necessarily involve many imbalances, immaturities and imperfections. Moreover, because of the largely spontaneous and unselfconscious nature of our pattern, we will be unaware of many aspects of it. Thus, our attainment of true self-knowledge will involve our becoming acutely aware of the internal psychic mechanisms of our response pattern. We must take stock of both the strengths and the weaknesses of our pattern and make deliberate efforts to bring it into harmony, balance, and full development. We must also begin to correct false or improper development.

This is the beginning of a transformation or growth process for which we assume responsibility. Until this point in our lives, our growth and development has been primarily in the hands of others. Though we have collaborated in the process with some degree of consciousness, nevertheless the major part has been beyond our control and indeed beyond our awareness. We have been the relatively passive recipients of a process to which we have been subjected by others. Now we must become the agents and prime movers of our own growth process. This self-directed process is a continuation of the previously unconscious one, but it represents a new and significant stage in our lives.

 

This new, self-directed growth process is going to take time. Moreover, it is sometimes going to be painful, and in the beginning stages at least, very painful. The new, more balanced functioning for which we begin to strive will appear at first to be unnatural since the spontaneous pattern we will have previously developed is the natural expression of our (relatively undeveloped and immature) selves.

 

In fact, one of the major problems involved in starting the process of spiritual growth is that we initially feel so comfortable with our spontaneous and unexamined mode of functioning. This is why it often happens that an individual becomes strongly motivated to begin the spiritual growth process only after his spontaneous system of coping has failed in some clear and dramatic way.

 

The realization that failure has occurred may come in many different forms. Perhaps we are faced with a “test,” a life situation that puts new and unusual strain on our defective response system and thus reveals to us its weakness. We may even temporarily break down, i.e., become unable to function in situations which previously caused no difficulties. This is because we have become so disillusioned by our sudden realization of our weakness that we put the whole framework of our personalities into doubt. Perceiving that things are wrong, but not yet knowing just how or why, we suspend activity until we can gain perspective on what is happening.45If a person has been fortunate in the quality of spiritual education he has received during his formative years, his spontaneous system of functioning may be very good indeed compared with others in less fortunate circumstances. If his spiritual education has been especially good, he will have already learned and understood the necessity of assuming the responsibility for his own spiritual growth process (and will have already begun to do so as an adolescent). In such cases as these, the individual will not need any test or dramatic setback in order to awaken him to spiritual realities of which he is already aware. Indeed, the Bahá’í Writings explain that the very purpose of the spiritual education of children and youth is to lead them to such an understanding of spiritual realities that, upon reaching adulthood, they will be naturally equipped to take charge of their own lives and spiritual growth processes. Spiritual education of this quality is extremely rare (in fact virtually nonexistent) in our society today, but the Bahá’í Writings contain many principles and techniques for the spiritual education of children and affirm that the application of these principles will, in the future, enable the majority of people to attain the age of adulthood with a clear understanding of the dynamics of the spiritual growth process. Though this state of affairs will not eliminate all human suffering (in particular suffering which comes from physical accident or certain illnesses), it will eliminate that considerable proportion of human suffering which is generated by the sick, distorted, and destructive response patterns and modes of functioning widespread in current society.

Or, the perception of the inadequacy of our spontaneous system of functioning may result from our unanticipated failure at some endeavor. We are then led to wonder why we anticipated a success that we were unable to deliver.46The answer may be that our expectations were unreasonable to begin with. In this way, failure to obtain some particular external goal can lead to success in gaining valid knowledge and insight into our internal processes, thus fostering spiritual growth. Indeed, there is very little that happens to us in life that cannot be used to give us new self-insight and hence contribute to fulfilling the basic purpose of prosecuting the spiritual growth process. It sometimes happens that a person whose spontaneous level of functioning is quite weak and defective is soon led to discover this fact while a person whose spontaneous level of functioning is rather high (due to favorable circumstances in early life or to exceptional natural endowments) persists for many years in his spiritually unaware state, making no spiritual progress whatever. In this way, the person whose spontaneous level of functioning is weak may take charge of his growth process much sooner than others and thereby eventually surpass those with more favorable natural endowments or initial life circumstances.

The frequency with which the perception of inadequacy and the consequent motivation to change is born through fiery ordeal has led some to build a model of spiritual growth in which such dramatic failures and terrible sufferings are considered to be unavoidable and necessary aspects of the growth process. The Bahá’í Writings would appear to take a middle position on this question. On the one hand, they clearly affirm that tests, difficulties, and sufferings are inevitable, natural concomitants of the spiritual growth process. Such painful experiences, it is explained, serve to give us deeper understanding of certain spiritual laws upon which our continued growth depends.47Regarding the spiritual meaning and purpose of suffering, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has said: “Tests are benefits from God, for which we should thank Him. Grief and sorrow do not come to us by chance, they are sent to us by the Divine mercy for our own perfecting … The mind and spirit of man advance when he is tried by suffering … suffering and tribulation free man from the petty affairs of this worldly life until he arrives at a state of complete detachment. His attitude in this world will be that of divine happiness … Through suffering (one) will attain to an eternal happiness which nothing can take from him … To attain eternal happiness one must suffer. He who has reached the state of self-sacrifice has true joy. Temporal joy will vanish.” Divine Art of Living, pp. 89-90. On the other hand, many instances of human suffering are simply the result of careless living and are therefore potentially avoidable. Bahá’ís are taught to pray to God for preservation from violent or extreme tests. Moreover, the Bahá’í Writings strictly forbid asceticism and any other similar philosophies or disciplines which incite the individual actively to seek pain or suffering in the path of spiritual growth. The growth process itself involves enough pain without our seeking more through misguided or thoughtless living. But the deep sufferings and dramatic setbacks are potentially there for everyone who feels inclined to learn the hard way.48Naturally, it is heartening to see examples of murderers, thieves, rapists, or drug addicts who turn themselves around and become useful members of society and occasionally morally and intellectually superior human beings. But one can also deplore the fact that people with such potential and talents must waste so many years and cause so much suffering to themselves and others before realizing their potential.

Of course, even dramatic failures and sufferings may sometimes not be enough to convince us of our weaknesses and immaturities. We may put up various “defenses,” i.e., we may resist seeing the truth of the matter even when it is plain to everyone but ourselves. We engage in such strategies of self-illusion primarily when, for whatever reason, we find some particular bit of self-revelation unusually hard to take. If we do not learn the lesson from the situation, we may blindly and adamantly persist in the same behavior or thought patterns which continue to produce new and perhaps even more painful situations. We are then in a “vicious circle” in which our resistance to accepting the truer picture of reality actually increases with each new bit of negative feedback. Regarding such vicious circle situations, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has said:

Tests are a means by which a soul is measured as to its fitness, and proven out by its own acts. God knows its fitness beforehand, and also its unpreparedness, but man, with an ego, would not believe himself unfit unless some proof were given to him. Consequently his susceptibility to evil is proven to him when he falls into tests, and the tests are continued until the soul realizes its own unfitness, then remorse and regret tend to root out the weakness.49Quoted in Daniel Jordan, The Meaning of Deepening (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1973), p. 38.

Let us sum up. We start the process of conscious spiritual development by becoming aware of how we function at our present level of maturity. We assess as realistically as possible the level of intellectual, emotional, and behavioral maturity we have attained at present. As we perceive imbalanced development, underdevelopment, or improper development, we begin the job of correcting the perceived inadequacies.

 

It is at this stage, in particular, that the Bahá’í view of the nature of man becomes so important in fostering our spiritual growth and progress.50Of course, if our parents and educators have also had the Bahá’í viewpoint of the nature of man, this will have contributed to our development during our formative years. However, our future growth and development will depend on whatever attitudes and viewpoints we personally maintain. Nevertheless, we will continue to be significantly affected by our interactions with others and therefore by the attitudes and viewpoints which they have. More will be said about this point in a later section. Suppose we perceive, for example, that we have a tendency to be very willful, aggressive, and dominant in our relations with others. From the Bahá’í viewpoint, we would not consider the negative features of this pattern as inherently evil or sinful or as arising from some evil part of ourselves, a part which must be despised and suppressed. We are free to recognize the positive potential of this aspect of our character. After examination, we might find that we have not sufficiently developed our feeling capacity and are, therefore, sometimes insensitive to the needs and feelings of others. Or perhaps we often act impulsively and need to develop also our understanding capacity so as to act more reflectively and wisely. Or again, we might find that our mode of relating to others represents an attempt to satisfy in an illegitimate way some need within us (a need for security or self-worth perhaps) that we have not succeeded in meeting legitimately. We will then understand that we have been engaging in an improper (and unproductive) use of will and must, therefore, set about redeploying our psychic forces in a more productive manner. As we gradually succeed in doing this, we will satisfy our inner need legitimately and improve our relationships with others at the same time.51Of course, if our parents and educators have also had the Bahá’í viewpoint of the nature of man, this will have contributed to our development during our formative years. However, our future growth and development will depend on whatever attitudes and viewpoints we personally maintain. Nevertheless, we will continue to be significantly affected by our interactions with others and therefore by the attitudes and viewpoints which they have. More will be said about this point in a later section.

In other words, the model of human spiritual and moral functioning offered by the Bahá’í Faith enables us to respond creatively and constructively once we become aware that change is necessary. We avoid wasting precious energy on guilt, self-hatred, or other such unproductive mechanisms. We are able to produce some degree of change almost immediately. This gives us positive feedback, makes us feel better about ourselves, and helps generate courage to continue the process of change we have just begun.

We now come to the important question of the mechanism by which we can take a step forward in the path of spiritual progress. What we need to consider is the hierarchical relationship between knowledge, love, and action.

4. Knowledge, Love, and Will

A close examination of the psychology of the spiritual growth process as presented in the Bahá’í Writings indicates that the proper and harmonious functioning of our basic spiritual capacities depends on recognizing a hierarchical relationship among them. At the apex of this hierarchy is the knowing capacity.

First and foremost among these favors, which the Almighty hath conferred upon man, is the gift of understanding. His purpose in conferring such a gift is none other except to enable His creature to know and recognize the one true God—exalted be His glory. This gift giveth man the power to discern the truth in all things, leadeth him to that which is right, and helpeth him to discover the secrets of creation. Next in rank, is the power of vision, the chief instrument whereby his understanding can function. The senses of hearing, of the heart, and the like, are similarly to be reckoned among the gifts with which the human body is endowed. … These gifts are inherent in man himself. That which is preeminent above all other gifts, is incorruptible in nature, and pertaineth to God Himself, is the gift of Divine Revelation. Every bounty conferred by the Creator upon man, be it material or spiritual, is subservient unto this.52Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust), 1971, pp. 194-195.

In the last chapter of Some Answered Questions, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá elaborates even further on this theme. He explains that right actions and moral behavior are not in themselves sufficient for spirituality. Alone, such actions and behavior constitute “… a body of the greatest loveliness, but without spirit.”53Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1981), p. 300-302. He then explains: “. . . that which is the cause of everlasting life, eternal honor, universal enlightenment, real salvation and prosperity is, first of all, the knowledge of God.”54‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1981), p. 300-302. He continues, affirming: “Second, comes the love of God, the light of which shines in the lamp of the hearts of those who know God …”55‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1981), p. 300-302. and “The third virtue of humanity is the goodwill which is the basis of good actions . . . though a good action is praiseworthy, yet if it is not sustained by the knowledge of God, the love of God, and a sincere intention, it is imperfect.”56‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1981), p. 300-302.

In another passage, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá expresses the primacy of knowledge with respect to action as follows: “Although a person of good deeds is acceptable at the Threshold of the Almighty, yet it is first “to know” and then “to do”. Although a blind man produceth a most wonderful and exquisite art, yet he is deprived of seeing it…. By faith is meant, first, conscious knowledge, and second, the practice of good deeds.”57‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Bahá’í World Faith (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1956), pp. 382-383. In yet another passage, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá describes the steps towards the attainment of spirituality:

By what means can man acquire these things? How shall he obtain these merciful gifts and powers? First, through the knowledge of God. Second, through the love of God. Third, through faith. Fourth, through philanthropic deeds. Fifth, through self-sacrifice. Sixth, through severance from this world. Seventh, through sanctity and holiness. Unless he acquires these forces and attains to these requirements he will surely be deprived of the life that is eternal.58Divine Art of Living (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1974), p. 19.

In the above passages, and in many others not quoted, the hierarchical ordering of spiritual faculties is the same: Knowledge leads to love which generates the courage to act (i.e., faith) which forms the basis of the intention to act (i.e., motive and good will) which in turn leads to action itself (i.e., good deeds).Of course, the knowledge which starts this psycho-spiritual chain reaction is not just any kind of knowledge, but the knowledge of God which is equivalent to true self-knowledge.

As we begin to take charge of our own spiritual growth process, one of the main problems we face is that our existing perception of ourselves—of what we are and of what we should be—is bound to be distorted and inadequate in various ways, for his self-perception (or self-image) is the very basis of the spontaneous response pattern we have inherited from our childhood and early youth. Indeed, our mode of functioning at any given stage of our development is largely just a dramatization of our basic self-image; it is the projection of this self-image onto the various life situations we encounter. Thus, our self-image is, in many ways, the key to our personalities.

In any case, to the degree that our self-concept is false we will experience unpleasant tensions and difficulties as we become involved in various life situations. The false or unrealistic parts of our self-image will be implicitly judged by our encounter with external reality. We will sense this and begin to perceive, at first vaguely and uncomfortably but then more sharply, that something is wrong. Even though this feedback information from external reality may be from neutral sources and devoid of any value-judgemental quality, we may nevertheless perceive it as a threat or even an attack. If the feedback is not neutral but comes, say, in the form of blatantly negative criticism from others, our sense of being threatened will certainly be much greater.

Moreover, we will perceive the source of these threats as being somewhere outside ourselves. It will not naturally occur to us that the source lies rather within ourselves in the form of an illusory and unrealistic self-concept. Therefore, our instinctive reaction to the negative feedback information will be to resist, to defend our self-image and to strive to maintain it. In defending our self-image, we believe we are defending our selves because we do not view ourselves as a mosaic of true and false, real and unreal. We see only the seamless, undifferentiated whole of “I” or “me.” The result is that we begin to bind up more and more of our psychic energies in the defence of our self- image. We confuse egotistic pride, which is our attachment to our limited and distorted self-concept, with self- respect and honour, which are expressions of the deep spiritual truth that we are created in the image of God with an intrinsic value given by Him and without any essentially evil or sinful part.

The “binding energy” involved in our defence of our self-concept is frequently experienced as various negative emotions like fear, rage, jealousy, or aggression. These emotions are all expressions of our attempt to locate the source of our irritation outside ourselves in objective, external reality. We are also liable to experience considerable anxiety as we cling more and more desperately to whatever false part of ourselves we cannot relinquish. Clearly, the greater the pathology of our self-image and the greater our attachment to it, the stronger will be our sense of being threatened and attacked, and the greater will be the amount of psychic energy necessary to maintain and defend the false part of our self-image.

At this point, an increase in self-knowledge will be represented by some insight into ourselves which enables us to discard a false part of our self-image. This act of self-knowledge is the first stage in the mechanism involved in taking a single step forward in the process of spiritual growth. Such an increment in self-knowledge has one immediate consequence: It instantly releases that part of our psychic energy which was previously bound up in defending and maintaining the false self-concept. The release of this binding energy is most usually experienced as an extremely positive emotion, a sense of exhilaration and of liberation. It is love. We have a truer picture of our real (and therefore God-created) selves, and we have a new reservoir of energy which is now freed for its God-intended use in the form of service to others.

Following this release of energy will be an increase in courage. We have more courage partly because we have more knowledge of reality and have therefore succeeded in reducing, however slightly, the vastness of what is unknown and hence potentially threatening to us. We also have more courage because we have more energy to deal with whatever unforeseen difficulties may lie ahead. This new increment of courage is an increase in faith.

Courage generates within us intentionality, i.e., the willingness and the desire to act. We want to act because we are anxious to experience the sense of increased mastery that will come from dealing with life situations which previously appeared difficult or impossible but which now seem challenging and interesting. And we are also eager to seek new challenges, to use our new knowledge and energy in circumstances we would have previously avoided. And, most importantly, we have an intense desire to share with others, to serve them and to be an instrument, to whatever possible extent, in the process of their spiritual growth and development.

Finally, this intentionality, this new motivation, expresses itself in concrete action. Until now everything has taken place internally, in the inner recesses of our psyche. No external observer could possibly know that anything significant has taken place. But when we begin to act, the reality of this inner process is dramatized. Action, then, is the dramatization of intentionality and therefore of knowledge, faith, and love. It is the visible, observable concomitant of the invisible process that has occurred within us.

We have taken a step forward in our spiritual development. We have moved from one level to another. However small the step may be, however minimal the difference between the old level of functioning and the new, a definite transition has taken place.

Whenever we act, we affect not only ourselves but also our physical and social environment. Our action thereby evokes a reaction from others. This reaction is, of course, just a form of the feedback information mentioned above. But the difference is that our action has now been the result of a conscious and deliberate process. We know why we acted the way we did. Thus, we will perceive the reaction in a different way, even if it is negative (our good intentions certainly do not guarantee that the reaction will be positive). We will welcome the reaction because it will help us evaluate our actions. In short, the reaction to our actions will give us new knowledge, new self-insight. In this way, the cycle starts again and the process of taking another step along the path of spiritual growth is repeated. We represent this by the following diagram:

As is the case with any new discipline, so it is with learning spiritual growth. Our first steps forward are painfully self-conscious and hesitant. We are acutely aware of each detail, so much so that we wonder whether we will ever be able to make it work. We are elated at our first successes, but we tend to linger on the plateaus, becoming sufficiently motivated to take another step only when negative pressures begin to build up intolerably, forcing us to act.

Yet, as we pursue the process, we become more adept at it. Gradually, certain aspects become spontaneous and natural (not unconscious). They become part of us to the point of being reflex actions. The feedback loop resulting from our actions becomes more and more automatic. The rate of progress begins to pick up. The steps merge imperceptibly. Finally, the process becomes almost continuous. In other words, the rate of progress increases as we go along because we are not only making progress but also perfecting our skill at making progress.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá has said:

It is possible to so adjust one’s self to the practice of nobility that its atmosphere surrounds and colours every act. When actions are habitually and conscientiously adjusted to noble standards, with no thought of the words that might herald them, then nobility becomes the accent of life. At such a degree of evolution one scarcely needs try any longer to be good—all acts are become the distinctive expression of nobility.59‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Star of the West, Vol. 17, p. 286.

A process in which the rate of progress is proportional to the amount of progress made is exponential (see note 52). Thus, an analysis of the mechanism of the spiritual growth process allows us to understand why this process, though remaining a gradual one, is exponential: It is because we perfect the process of growing spiritually as we grow, thereby increasing the rate at which growth occurs.

The above diagram, and the detailed analysis of each stage of the mechanism involved in the hierarchical relationship between knowledge, love, and will, should not lead us to forget the other fundamental point, namely that all of our spiritual faculties must function together at each stage of the mechanism. In order to gain self-insight, we must will to know the truth about ourselves, and we must be attracted towards the truth. When we act, we must temper our actions with the knowledge and wisdom we have already accumulated at that given point in our development.

Moreover, when we begin the process of conscious, self-directed spiritual growth we do not start from absolute emptiness but rather from the basis of whatever knowledge, love, faith, and will we have developed at that point in our lives. Thus, the spiritual growth process is lived and dramatized by each individual in a way which is unique to him even though the basic mechanism of progress and the rules which govern it are universal.

5. Tools for Spiritual Growth

Our understanding of the process of spiritual growth and its dynamics does not guarantee that we will be successful in our pursuit of spirituality. We stand in need of practical tools to help us at every turn. The Bahá’í Writings give a clear indication of a number of such tools. In particular, prayer, meditation and study of the Writings of the Manifestations, and active service to mankind are repeatedly mentioned. For example, in a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi it is stated:

When a person becomes a Bahá’í, actually what takes place is that the seed of the spirit starts to grow in the human soul. This seed must be watered by the outpourings of the Holy Spirit. These gifts of the spirit are received through prayer, meditation, study of the Holy Utterances and service to the Cause of God …service in the Cause is like the plough which ploughs the physical soil when seeds are sown.60Excerpt from a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi in The Bahá’í Life, p. 20.

Some of the points mentioned briefly in the above passage are amplified in the following statement from the same source:

How to attain spirituality is indeed a question to which every young man and woman must sooner or later try to find a satisfactory answer. …

 

Indeed the chief reason for the evils now rampant in society is the lack of spirituality. The materialistic civilization of our age has so much absorbed the energy and interest of mankind that people in general do no longer feel the necessity of raising themselves above the forces and conditions of their daily material existence. There is not sufficient demand for things that we call spiritual to differentiate them from the needs and requirements of our physical existence. …

 

The universal crisis affecting mankind is, therefore, essentially spiritual in its causes … the core of religious faith is that mystic feeling which unites Man with God. This state of spiritual communion can be brought about and maintained by means of meditation and prayer. And this is the reason why Bahá’u’lláh has so much stressed the importance of worship. … The Bahá’í Faith, like all other Divine Religions, is thus fundamentally mystic in character. Its chief goal is the development of the individual and society, through the acquisition of spiritual virtues and powers. It is the soul of man which has first to be fed. And this spiritual nourishment prayer can best provide.61Excerpt from a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi in Directives from the Guardian (New Delhi: Bahá’í Publishing Trust), pp. 86-87.

With regard to meditation, the Bahá’í Writings explain that it has no set form and each individual is free to meditate in the manner he finds most helpful. Statements by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá describe meditation as a silent contemplation, a sustained mental concentration or focusing of thought:

Bahá’u’lláh says there is a sign (from God) in every phenomenon: the sign of the intellect is contemplation and the sign of contemplation is silence, because it is impossible for a man to do two things at one time—he cannot both speak and meditate. …

Meditation is the key for opening the doors of mysteries. In that state man abstracts himself: in that state man withdraws himself from all outside objects; in that subjective mood he is immersed in the ocean of spiritual life and can unfold the secrets of things-in-themselves.62‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks (London: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1979), pp. 174-175.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá leaves no doubt concerning the importance of meditation as a tool for spiritual growth:

You cannot apply the name “man” to any being void of this faculty of meditation; without it he would be a mere animal, lower than the beasts. Through the faculty of meditation man attains to eternal life; through it he receives the breath of the Holy Spirit—the bestowal of the Spirit is given in reflection and meditation.63‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks (London: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1979), p. 175.

And Bahá’u’lláh has said that “One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years of pious worship.”64Bahá’u’lláh, The Kitáb-Íqán (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Committee, 1954),p. 238. These strong statements of Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá concerning meditation should not, however, be taken as implying an absolute faith in man’s intuitive powers. See note 39.

The Bahá’í Writings suggest that the words and teachings of the Manifestations provide a helpful focus for meditation. Also, while giving considerable freedom to the individual concerning prayer, they likewise suggest that the prayers of the Manifestations are especially useful in establishing a spiritual connection between the soul of man and the Divine Spirit. Prayer is defined as conversation or communion with God:

The wisdom of prayer is this, that it causes a connection between the servant and the True One, because in that state of prayer man with all his heart and soul turns his face towards His Highness the Almighty, seeking His association and desiring His love and compassion. The greatest happiness for a lover is to converse with his beloved, and the greatest gift for a seeker is to become familiar with the object of his longing. That is why the greatest hope of every soul who is attracted to the kingdom of God is to find an opportunity to entreat and supplicate at the ocean of His utterance, goodness and generosity.65‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Divine Art of Living, p. 27.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá has elsewhere explained that the spirit in which one prays is the most important dimension of prayer. A ritualistic mumbling of words or a mindless repetition of syllables is not prayer. Moreover, the Bahá’í Writings enjoin the spiritual seeker to make of his whole life, including his professional activities, an act of worship:

In the Bahá’í Cause arts, sciences and all crafts are counted as worship. The man who makes a piece of notepaper to the best of his ability, conscientiously, concentrating all his forces on perfecting it, is giving praise to God. Briefly, all effort put forth by man from the fullness of his heart is worship, if it is prompted by the highest motives and the will to do service to humanity. Thus is worship: to serve mankind and to minister to the needs of the people. Service is prayer. …66 ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Divine Art of Living, p. 65.

Thus, it is the spirit and motive of service to others which makes external activity a tool for spiritual progress. In order to pursue the goal of spirituality, one must therefore maintain a persistently high level of motivation. Prayer, meditation, and study of the Words of the Manifestations are essential in this regard:

The first thing to do is to acquire a thirst for spirituality, then Live the Life! Live the Life! Live the Life! The way to acquire this thirst is to meditate upon the future life. Study the Holy Words, read your Bible, read the Holy Books, especially study the Holy Utterances of Bahá’u’lláh. Prayer and Meditation, take much time for these two. Then will you know the Great Thirst, and then only can you begin to Live the Life!67Abdu’l-Bahá in Bahá’í Magazine, vol. 19, no. 3, 1928.

Thus, while the quality and maturity of one’s relationship to others remain the best measure of spiritual progress and growth, acquiring the capacity for such mature relationships depends essentially on an intense inner life and self-development. Moreover, the individual’s actions are experienced both by himself and by others, whereas inner life is experienced only by the individual and is thereby more properly “his.” The sense of “that mystic feeling which unites Man with God” becomes to the spiritual seeker the most precious of experiences. It is that part of spirituality which lies at the center of his heart and soul.

In this inner dimension, spirituality becomes a sort of dialogue between the human soul and the Divine Spirit as channeled through the Manifestation. It is within this subjective but nevertheless real dimension of inner spirituality that one finds all the passion, the exaltation of spirit, as well as the terrible but somehow precious moments of despair, of utter helplessness and defeat, of shame and repentance. It is here that one learns with the deeply certain knowledge only personal experience can bestow, that the ultimate category of existence, the absolute and transcendent God who guides and oversees our destiny, is an infinitely loving and merciful Being.

By William Hatcher

Human history has witnessed the birth, proliferation, and death of countless religions, belief systems, and philosophies. Though the generating impulse for each of these systems is undoubtedly related to numerous particular cultural and psychological factors, there runs through virtually all of them the common idea that man is not, in his naturally given human state, whole or complete. The concomitant to this belief is the idea that man must undergo some process of completion, some discipline of self-definition. Such a process is usually regarded by its exponents as the basic purpose of man’s existence, for through it man is seen to acquire or develop what is essential and universal, and not merely accidental and local, within the range of human potentiality. By this process, he defines what he truly is by becoming what he most truly can be. The process is often described as one of “salvation”, of being lifted above the condition of unregeneration (or spiritual death) to the plane of a superior reality.

The revealed religions have been major sources of such salvation concepts, spiritual philosophies, and spiritual disciplines. Historically, the revealed religions would seem to be united in affirming, each in its own particular way, that there is an objectively real spiritual dimension to the universe, and that this spiritual dimension of existence is for man the most fundamental and the most important aspect of reality. However, the revealed religions also appear, at least at first glance, to exhibit a disturbing degree of difference in their respective views of the exact nature of this spiritual reality and of how man should relate properly to it. Moreover, most of the traditional systems of religious belief appear now to have crystallized into rigid social patterns and dogmatic attitudes of thought and belief with which the modern ethos of rapid social and intellectual change seems incompatible.

The changes in modern-day society are being wrought primarily by a highly efficient, powerful, and established science which owes little or nothing to established religion. Whereas the religions, for the most part, continue to press harder and harder their mutually contradictory claims each to possess an absolute and unchanging truth which admits no compromise, science is based squarely on the idea that truth is relative and progressive, that what is useful and productive in the realm of ideas and techniques today may be obsolete and unproductive tomorrow. Thus, traditional religion has come to abhor and fear change while science thrives upon it.

Yet, science and technology have not given man the sense of wholeness he has so long been seeking, even though they have given him a vastly increased power to control and manipulate his physical environment. The sense of incompleteness and the conscious need for transcendence, for contact with some deep spiritual reality, are widespread in our society. Indeed, hardly at any other time of history or in any other culture has the sense of spiritual inadequacy been so acute as is currently the case in industrialized, high-technology, Western culture. But if contemporary man turns to religion for enlightenment, he too often finds dogmatism, which his mind cannot accept, or mindless emotionalism, which is not worthy of acceptance.

From the modern perspective, each of the great religions appears as a system which was largely successful in satisfying the spiritual and social needs of a certain people or culture during a previous era of history, but which is no longer adequate to meet the needs of humanity in the present critical period of history. Thus, modern man is caught in a serious dilemma with regard to fundamental spiritual questions. On the one hand, the highly efficient science he has so successfully developed serves in part to deepen his moral and spiritual needs—needs that science alone cannot satisfy.1For example, powerful new techniques for manipulating such things as the human genetic endowment raise novel and acute ethical questions concerning their proper and responsible use. On the other hand, most of the traditional religious forms, attitudes and concepts now appear obsolete and irrelevant.

This modern dilemma is addressed by several of the fundamental principles of the historically recent Bahá’í Faith. The Bahá’í principle of the unity of science and religion holds that religious truth, like scientific truth (or truth in general), is relative and progressive. It accepts unreservedly that “If religious beliefs and opinions are found contrary to the standards of science they are mere superstitions and imaginations….”2‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Bahá’í World Faith (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1956), p. 240. In particular, with regard to spiritual questions the Bahá’í Faith rejects a dogmatic approach: It affirms that there are spiritual realities governed by lawful relationships, and it invites each individual to assume a scientific attitude and to seek out and test for himself these spiritual truths.3The present monograph consists in a rather detailed discussion of certain aspects of the Bahá’í conception of these spiritual truths and realities, but with little or no attempt to explain the basis upon which such a conception rests. This latter task was the objective of a previous effort of the present writer, published as “The Science of Religion,” Bahá’í Studies, vol. 2, rev. ed., 1980.

Concerning the great world religions, the Bahá’í Faith teaches that they all derive from one common source, namely, that one, ultimate, creative force responsible for the phenomena of the universe, that force we call God. Bahá’ís hold that the founding figures of those great religious systems (e.g., Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Zoroaster, Muhammad) were all chosen channels or true spokesmen for this unique God, and that differences in Their teachings are due primarily to the varying requirements of the cultures and ages in which these systems were originally promulgated. Other significant doctrinal differences among these systems, as they are currently elaborated, are attributed to inaccuracies and distortions gradually introduced by their followers in the course of their evolution as social systems after the death of their founders.4Also, one should not forget that, except for the more historically recent of these systems (such as Islám), we have no direct access to the exact words or the pure form of the original teachings as given by the Founder. Moreover, the various interpretations which the theologians and thinkers have subsequently attached to those written records which do exist are conditioned and limited by various cultural factors and cannot, therefore, be regarded as surely authentic representations of the thought of the Founder. However, the essential spiritual message of these systems is affirmed to be universal and common to all.

The Bahá’í Faith views itself as deriving from the most recent of these revelation events, as the latest chapter in the (unending) book of religion, so to speak. Bahá’u’lláh (1817-1892), Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, put forth these and other teachings in a series of over 100 books and manuscripts written primarily between 1853 and His death in 1892. Thus, Bahá’ís feel that traditional religions are perceived by modern man as so unsatisfactory partly because some of their teachings are laden with culture-bound patterns and concepts (e.g., the dietary and penal laws of Judaism and Islám) and partly because of man-made distortions and corruptions which have crept in over the years. Religious dogmatism represents the arrogant attempt to transform a relative and partial conception of truth into an absolute and unchanging system, binding the whole of mankind for all human history. According to the Bahá’í understanding of the dynamics of God-created human nature, no such fixed system could ever be adequate for mankind. The Bahá’í system itself is viewed as responding to the needs of mankind in the present hour, but not for all future history.

Bahá’ís hold that the basic spiritual message common to the revealed religions is progressively elaborated and more fully articulated in each successive revelation. One would therefore expect that the Bahá’í Faith, if it is indeed the most recent divinely inspired articulation of spiritual truth to mankind, would contain a fuller elaboration and deeper expression of this truth.

I believe that such is the case, and in the following pages I have quoted liberally, and sometimes at length, from the Bahá’í Writings in an effort to convey to the reader some of the incredible spiritual riches they contain. Yet, all the ideas and opinions expressed herein should be strictly regarded as nothing beyond the attempt of one mind to grasp some of the deeper meanings latent in the profound Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and Shoghi Effendi. In an effort to limit the scope of this monograph to reasonable proportions and to achieve an orderly exposition, I have consistently focused on the concept of spirituality, that is, on an intellectual and logical understanding of spirituality. This work does not attempt in any way to be a manual for attaining spirituality but seeks only to gain, insofar as is possible, a clearer conception of what is implied in attaining it.

Of course, attaining any goal is easier when we have a clear conception of what its attainment involves. I have offered the present text for publication only in the hope that it may contribute in some measure to the common task we all have of trying to express our spiritual understanding to each other, especially as I have already richly benefited from the insights and reflections of so many in this regard.

I. THE NATURE OF MAN

1. The Basic Components of Man’s Character

The Bahá’í writings articulate a model of human nature and functioning which sees man as the product of two basic conditions, the physical (material) and the spiritual (non-material). The physical dimension of man’s existence derives from his genetic endowment, determined at conception, plus the interaction of this configuration with the environment. This interaction produces an internal, physical milieu which is unique to each individual, though sharing common features with all members of the human species. The spiritual dimension of man’s nature derives from the existence of a non-material entity, the soul, which is individualized, it is explained, at the moment of conception. Just as the physical body of man has various physical capacities, so the soul has its capacities, called spiritual capacities of man. Among the most important spiritual capacities mentioned in the Bahá’í Writings as characteristic of man are those of the intellect or understanding, the heart or feeling capacity, and the will (the capacity to initiate and sustain action).

The interactions of the individual with his environment affect not only his body but his soul as well. They develop both the genetically given physical capacities and the initially given spiritual capacities. These interactions may be called learning or education, and they give rise to a third aspect of man’s total character, an aspect that is both physical and spiritual.

In sum, there are three essential aspects of the character of man: his genetic endowment, which is surely physical; his soul and its capacities, which are purely spiritual; and education, which is both physical and spiritual.5According to the Bahá’í conception, the soul of each individual is eternal while the body, composed as it is of elements, is subject to physical decomposition, i.e., death. Thus, the soul is the true source of the individual’s consciousness, personality, and self. The soul does not depend on the body but rather the body is the instrument of the soul during the period of earthly existence when the soul and the body are linked together. The Bahá’í Writings also make unequivocally clear the Bahá’í belief that each human soul is not preexistent but is “individualized” at the moment of conception. Bahá’ís do not, therefore, believe in reincarnation—the doctrine that the same individual soul returns in different bodies to live different or successive earthly lives. It is explained rather that the soul’s progress after the death of the physical body is towards God and that this progression takes place in other, purely spiritual (i.e. nonmaterial) realms of existence.
Of course, we cannot see the soul since it is not physical, but we can deduce its existence from the observable effects it produces. Roughly speaking, we can observe that the physical endowments of the higher apes, and, in particular, their central nervous systems, do not differ substantially from man’s. Yet such beings seem incapable of the conscious, self-aware, deliberate intellection which characterizes man. At best, they seem capable only of “reactive” conditioned response rather than the imaginative, self-initiated thought of man, involving as it does long chains of deduction, and anticipation of and adaptation to imagined future events (i.e., hypotheses).

In Some Answered Questions, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá speaks of these three basic aspects of man’s character:

He [man] has the innate character, the inherited character, and the acquired character which is gained by education.

 

With regard to the innate character, although the divine creation is purely good, yet the variety of natural qualities in man come from the difference of degree; all are excellent, but they are more or less so, according to the degree. So all mankind possesses intelligence and capacities, but the intelligence, the capacity and the worthiness of men differ. …

 

The variety of inherited qualities comes from strength and weakness of constitution—that is to say, when the two parents are weak, the children will be weak; if they are strong, the children will be robust. …

 

But the difference of the qualities with regard to culture is very great, for education has great influence …Education must be considered as most important, for as diseases in the world of bodies are extremely contagious, so, in the same way, qualities of spirit and heart are extremely contagious. Education has a universal influence, and the differences caused by it are very great.6‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1981), pp. 212-214.

From this, and other similar passages in the Bahá’í Writings, it is clear that the innate character derives from the capacities of the soul while the inherited character derives from the individual’s genetic endowment. Once fixed, these two elements of man’s character remain unchanged, but the process of education enables man to develop these capacities either to a relatively high degree or to a relatively low degree, thus producing significant differences in character not attributable solely either to heredity or to innate spiritual capacity.

2. Spirituality Defined

We have used the word “capacity” in referring both to the spiritual and to the physical endowments of the individual. The word connotes a potential, something to be fulfilled or accomplished (and something that is capable of fulfillment and accomplishment). Indeed, it is clear that the individual, at his birth into this world, is capable of manifesting very few of the qualities possessed by the mature adult human being. We know, moreover, that unless the infant is properly cared for and provided with a host of support systems and a growth-inducing milieu, he will never exhibit such qualities. Life, then, is a growth process. Man begins the process as a little bundle of potential and proceeds, for better or worse, to develop his potential through the process of education (considered broadly as the sum of all environmental influences on the individual plus the individual’s reaction to these influences).

According to Bahá’í teachings, the very purpose of man’s life is the proper, harmonious, and full development of spiritual capacities. This is the most worthwhile possible goal since spiritual capacities, being part of the immortal soul (see note 1), will eternally endure while the body and its capacities will not. However, the body is the instrument of the soul’s development in this earthly life, and so physical health and development cannot be safely neglected but rather must be made to serve the primary goal of fostering the soul’s progress.

Bahá’u’lláh expresses this truth succinctly and powerfully:

Through the Teachings of this Day Star of Truth [The Manifestation or Prophet of God] every man will advance and develop until he attaineth the station at which he can manifest all the potential forces with which his inmost true self hath been endowed. It is for this very purpose that in every age and dispensation the Prophets of God and His chosen Ones have appeared amongst men, and have evinced such power as is born of God and such might as only the Eternal can reveal.7Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1971), p. 68.

The process of developing one’s spiritual capacities is called spiritual growth or simply spirituality. We can thus formulate a working (operational) definition of the concept of spirituality as follows: Spirituality is the process of the full, adequate, proper, and harmonious development of one’s spiritual capacities. Unspirituality, by contrast, is either the lack of development of these capacities, their imbalanced or inharmonious development (e.g., the development of one to the exclusion of others), or else the false (improper) development and/or use of these capacities.

With this definition of spirituality in mind, we can also formulate a working definition of Bahá’í morality: That which fosters and advances the process of spiritual development is good, and that which tends to inhibit it is bad. Every law, counsel or behavioral norm contained in the Writings of the Bahá’í Faith can be understood in large measure from this perspective.

3. The Duality of Human Nature

The only component of man’s character capable of change is that which is acquired through education, where the latter term is understood broadly to mean the sum of all influences on the individual resulting from his encounters with and reactions to his environment. However, the human situation is such that not every influence, and most certainly not every one of our reactions to these influences, is conducive to spiritual progress. Thus, the process of spiritual growth involves learning how to make appropriate responses to various circumstances and how to initiate certain kinds of actions: spiritual growth is an educational process of a particular sort.

The experience of our life during the period when the body and the soul are linked is one of a tension between contradicting and opposing forces. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains that this tension results from the duality of the physical and the spiritual in man’s nature. On the one hand, man’s body has legitimate physical needs which cry for satisfaction: food, shelter, companionship, and protection from threatening forces. However, in seeking to satisfy these needs, man is easily led to be possessive, aggressive, and insensitive to the needs of others. On the other hand, man’s soul also has intrinsic needs that demand satisfaction. These needs are metaphysical and intangible. They incite the individual to seek meaning and purpose in life and to establish the proper relationship with God, with himself, and with his fellow humans. Though this proper relationship may, and indeed must, be expressed through physical means, it also is essentially intangible. It involves submission to the will of God, the acceptance of our dependence on a power higher than themselves. It implies self-knowledge, the discovery both of our limitations and of our particular talents and capacities. And it requires recognition of and respect for the rights of others. This means that we realize and understand that all other men have needs similar to our own and that we accept all the implications of this fact in our relations with and actions towards others.

Of course, the Bahá’í Faith is certainly not the first belief system to recognize this duality in man’s nature. But the Bahá’í view of this duality is significantly different from certain views frequently attributed to other belief systems, for the Bahá’í Faith does not superimpose an absolute (good-evil) value judgement upon the duality, viewing all things spiritual as good and all things material as bad. The Bahá’í Writings make clear that man can misuse his spiritual faculties just as easily as he can misuse his material ones. At the same time, the material faculties of man (indeed all of man’s natural capacities) are viewed as God-given and therefore intrinsically (metaphysically) good. As moral categories, good and evil are relative terms: A given action on the part of an individual is relatively less good than another action if that other action would have been more favorable to the process of spiritual growth. Moreover, the Bahá’í Writings lead us to understand that God judges human actions only with regard to those actions which are truly logically possible for the individual in the given circumstances. To judge otherwise would be tantamount to requiring of man that which is beyond his capabilities or, paraphrasing words of Bahá’u’lláh, to tasking a soul beyond its power.8See Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1971), p. 106.

In other words, only the direction of the spiritual growth process is given absolutely: it is towards the (unattainable) ideal of God-like perfection. But the process itself is lived relatively by each individual according to his spiritual and material endowments plus the free will choices he makes in dealing with the particular circumstances of his life. Since only God knows truly what these endowments and circumstances are for any individual, only God can judge the degree of moral responsibility of the individual in any situation.9This observation explains the time-honored injunction expressed by virtually all religious prophets and thinkers that no man is capable of judging the spiritual or moral worth of any other individual. This has nothing to do with society’s right to protect itself against antisocial behavior whether perpetrated deliberately by morally insensitive individuals, or involuntarily by sick or misguided individuals.

Here is the way that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains the essential and intrinsic goodness of all of man’s capacities, material or spiritual:

In creation there is no evil; all is good. Certain qualities and natures innate in some men and apparently blameworthy are not so in reality. For example, from the beginning of his life you can see in a nursing child the signs of greed, of anger and of temper. Then, it may be said, good and evil are innate in the reality of man, and this is contrary to the pure goodness of nature and creation. The answer to this is that greed, which is to ask for something more, is a praiseworthy quality provided that it is used suitably. So if a man is greedy to acquire science and knowledge, or to become compassionate, generous and just, it is most praiseworthy. If he exercises his anger and wrath against the bloodthirsty tyrants who are like ferocious beasts, it is very praiseworthy; but if he does not use these qualities in a right way, they are blameworthy.

Then it is evident that in creation and nature evil does not exist at all; but when the natural qualities of man are used in an unlawful way, they are blameworthy. 10‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1981), p. 215.

Thus, the main function of the body is to serve as an instrument of the soul during the time the immortal soul is linked to the mortal body. This period constitutes the first stage of an eternal growth process. The body’s capacities, when properly used, contribute to the process of spiritual growth. These material capacities are no more intrinsically bad than the capacities of the soul itself. Both material and spiritual capacities become harmful if they are misused through false or improper development.

However, Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá do stress the fact that the material capacities must be rigorously disciplined (not suppressed) if they are to serve their intended purpose as vehicles for spiritual growth. Since satisfying our physical needs can easily incite us to become aggressive towards others and insensitive to their needs, the individual must engage in a daily struggle with himself to maintain the proper perspective on life and its spiritual meaning.11Also, the Bahá’í Writings make totally clear the Bahá’í disbelief in the objective existence of Satan or of any such evil power or force (cf. Some Answered Questions, ‘The Nonexistence of Evil,’ pp. 263-264). It is explained that what man perceives as evil within himself is simply the absence of some positive quality (which lack is perhaps perceived in a particularly acute way if the individual suddenly finds himself in a situation where the missing quality would have been very useful). Similarly, strong or irrational urges are not, it is affirmed, the result of the action on us of some extrinsic evil force, but rather of subjectives desires arising from within ourselves, possibly due either to a prior lack of proper discipline or to the existence of some deep need which we may have neglected to fulfil in a healthy way (or which has not, in any case, been properly fulfilled). ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains that improper development can pervert our intrinsically good, natural (God-given) capacities into negative and destructive acquired capacities: “… capacity is of two kinds: natural capacity and acquired capacity. The first, which is the creation of God, is purely good … but the acquired capacity has become the cause of the appearance of evil. For example, God has created all men that they are benefited by sugar and honey and harmed and destroyed by poison. This nature and constitution is innate, and God has given it equally to all mankind. But man begins little by little to accustom himself to poison by taking a small quantity each day, and gradually increasing it, until he reaches such a point that he cannot live without a gram of opium each day. The natural capacities are thus completely perverted. Observe how much the natural capacity and constitution can be changed until by different habits and training they become entirely perverted. One does not criticize vicious people because of their innate capacities and nature, but rather for their acquired capacities and natures.’ Some Answered Questions, pp. 214-215.

More will be said later about the nature of this daily spiritual discipline. The main point here is that the tension between the material and spiritual in man is a creative tension purposely given by God, a tension whose function it is constantly to remind the individual of the necessity of making an effort in the path of spiritual growth. Moreover, the existence of the physical body with its needs provides daily opportunities for the individual to dramatize through action the degree of spirituality he has attained and to assess realistically his progress.12For example, since everyone knows what the physical sensation of hunger is like, anyone who willingly sacrifices his own physical well-being to help feed others commands a certain respect and communicates a spiritual reality to others in a way that far transcends preaching or philosophical discourse.

If man did not have the spiritual-material duality in his nature, he would be spared the unpleasant tension that often accompanies the struggle to take a step along the path of spiritual growth, but he would also be denied the opportunities for growth provided by this very duality.

4. Metaphysical Considerations

We have seen how the Bahá’í concept of spirituality flows naturally and logically from a coherent concept of the nature of man and of God’s purpose for man. It must be admitted, however, that a paradox seems to be at the heart of this process, or at least of our experience of the process during this earthly life. The paradox is that God has given man immediate and easy access to material reality while denying him such immediate access to spiritual realities. This seems a curious thing for God to have done if, in fact, the most important aspect of reality is the spiritual one and if our basic purpose in life is spiritual. If the spiritual dimension of man’s existence is ultimately the most real, then why are we given immediate perception only of the less substantial portion of total reality? Why, in short, are we called upon by God to pursue a spiritual purpose while being immersed in a sea of materiality?

To many people, this basic perception of our human condition is not just a paradox but an outright contradiction. It is impossible, they say, that there could be a world of unseen and unobservable spiritual realities so much less accessible than the world of material reality: the most obvious explanation for the inaccessibility of spiritual reality is that it does not exist. Whether or not the paradox is stated this strongly, it remains the basic stumbling block to atheists, agnostics, materialists, and positivists of whatever philosophical stripe in their approach to spiritual questions. For, even if one becomes convinced that there is a significant, nonmaterial dimension to objective reality, the rationale for its having been deliberately hidden from immediate access by a God who nevertheless holds us responsible for relating properly to it remains obscure.

Fortunately for our attempts to grasp the deeper significance of the Bahá’í concept of spirituality, Bahá’u’lláh has explained in clear terms the divine purpose underlying this fundamental feature of the human situation. The explanation lies in the principle of ‘separation and distinction’ by which God wishes individual moral and spiritual attainment to be the result of the individual’s self-responsible and self-directed efforts. Bahá’u’lláh affirms unequivocally that God could certainly have rendered spiritual truth and spiritual reality as irrefutably evident and as immediately accessible to our spiritual senses as is material reality to our physical senses. But, had He done so, all men would have been forever bereft of one important experience: the experience of the state of spiritual deprivation. As the universe is now ordered, everyone can have the experience of moving from a position of relative doubt, insecurity, uncertainty, and fear towards a position of relative certitude, security, knowledge and faith.

On this journey, we learn important lessons which would otherwise be denied us. We value true spirituality the more for having experienced, to whatever degree, its lack, and we are grateful for the privilege of having participated in and contributed to the process of its attainment. All of this would not be possible if spiritual knowledge and perfection were simply our natural state of being from the moment of our creation.

Here is one passage in which Bahá’u’lláh explains the principle of separation and distinction:

The purpose of God in creating man hath been, and will ever be, to enable him to know his Creator and to attain His Presence. … Whoso hath recognized the Day Spring of Divine guidance and entered His holy court hath drawn nigh unto God and attained His Presence. … Whoso hath failed to recognize Him will have condemned himself to the misery of remoteness, a remoteness which is naught but utter nothingness and the essence of the nethermost fire. Such will be his fate, though to outward seeming he may occupy the earth’s loftiest seats and be established upon its most exalted throne.

He Who is the Day Spring of Truth is, no doubt, fully capable of rescuing from such remoteness wayward souls and of causing them to draw nigh unto His court and attain His Presence. “If God had pleased He had surely made all men one people.” His purpose, however, is to enable the pure in spirit and the detached in heart to ascend, by virtue of their own innate powers, unto the shores of the Most Great Ocean, that thereby they who seek the Beauty of the All-Glorious may be distinguished and separated from the wayward and perverse. Thus hath it been ordained by the all-glorious and resplendent Pen. …

That the Manifestations of Divine justice, the Day Springs of heavenly grace, have when they appeared amongst men always been destitute of all earthly dominion and shorn of the means of worldly ascendancy, should be attributed to this same principle of separation and distinction which animateth the Divine Purpose. Were the Eternal Essence to manifest all that is latent within Him … none would be found to question His power or repudiate His truth. Nay, all created things would be so dazzled and thunderstruck by the evidences of His light as to be reduced to utter nothingness.13Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1971), pp. 70-72.

From this passage, we can understand that the intangibility of spiritual realities is not an accident but rather a deliberate and fundamental aspect of God’s purpose for man. Of course, if God had created us with no spiritual inclinations or perceptions whatever, if He had denied us immediate access to any part of reality, material or spiritual, or if He had created us with spiritual and metaphysical longings impossible of genuine fulfillment, we would be unable to succeed in our basic task. By starting the eternal spiritual growth process as spiritual-material hybrids, having immediate access to material reality and being endowed with significant physical and intellectual powers, we are able to learn the subtleties of spiritual development gradually. By experiencing first-hand the order and the lawfulness of the physical creation, we come to understand that the unseen spiritual realm is similarly ordered and governed by lawful, cause-and-effect relationships. At first intuitively, then explicitly and intellectually, and finally through genuine spiritual experience and inner development, we learn to participate consciously in this spiritual order of things. It becomes a day-to-day reality having an immediacy equal to and even greater than the immediacy of physical experience. Indeed, as Bahá’u’lláh explains, if we fulfill our responsibilities and learn our lessons well, we will be ready at the time of our physical death to pass easily into the purely spiritual realm. We will already have become familiar with its basic laws and modes of functioning and will therefore be prepared to take up our lives in that new realm and proceed with our growth process in a harmonious and satisfying manner:

The Prophets and Messengers of God have been sent down for the sole purpose of guiding mankind to the straight Path of Truth. The purpose underlying Their revelation hath been to educate all men, that they may, at the hour of death, ascend, in the utmost purity and sanctity and with absolute detachment, to the throne of the Most High.14Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1971), pp. 156-157. For a parallel discussion of some of these points see ‘The Metaphorical Nature of Physical Reality’, by John S. Hatcher, Bahá’í Studies, vol. 3, 1977.

Parts 2 and 3 of this article are re-published separately on this website and can be found in the Library.

By Bahíyyih Nakhjavání

 

Strive, O people, to gain admittance into this vast Immensity for which God ordained neither beginning nor end, in which His voice hath been raised, and over which have been wafted the sweet savors of holiness and glory.1Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, LII. Available at www.Bahái.org/r/348389522

 

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

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

I render Thee thanks … that Thou hast taught Thy servants how to make mention of Thee and revealed unto them the ways whereby they can supplicate Thee through Thy most holy and exalted tongue and Thy most august and precious speech.2Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh, CLXXVI. Available at www.bahai.org/r/721015589

The reconciliation of word and deed is likewise reflected in the mingling of justice and mercy in relation to the Writings, for while a single letter from the mouth of God is the “mother of all utterances”3Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh, CLIII. Available at www.bahai.org/r/360017873 and the “begetter of all creation,”4Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh, CLIII. Available at www.bahai.org/r/360017873 it can also decide “between all created things, causing them who are devoted to Thee to ascend unto the summit of glory and the infidels to fall into the lowest abyss.”5Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh, CLXXX. Available at www.bahai.org/r/169155682 At the same time words are the repositories of God’s infinite grace; the sheer abundance and poetry of Bahá’u’lláh’s language is an affirmation of the statement that “from eternity the door of Thy grace hath remained wide open.”6Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh, CLIII. Available at www.bahai.org/r/573843764 Such words are tokens of His immeasurable bounty:

Through the power released by these exalted words He hath lent afresh impulse and set a new direction to the birds of men ‘s hearts and hath obliterated every trace of restriction and limitation from God’s Holy Book.7Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/354019569

“O Comrades,” He cries to those who whether reading or seeking stand before the vast immensity of His Cause, “the gates that open on the Placeless stand wide”8Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words. Available at www.bahai.org/r/304654598 … “This,” He attests, “is verily an evidence of His tender mercy unto men.”9Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, LII. Available at www.bahai.org/r/043258227

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

O miserable me! Were I to attempt merely to describe Thee, such an attempt would itself be an evidence of my impiety, and would attest my heedlessness in the face of the clear and resplendent tokens of Thy oneness.10Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh, CXIV. Available at www.bahai.org/r/954407631

Since limitation is the hallmark of any human endeavor, it might be in keeping with the nature of this article to begin with a necessarily limited consideration of dust as a symbol of that state in the Writings. Again and again the circumference of the human heart, like the surface of earth, is stressed as a fixed condition, one that may not be transcended. Bahá’u’lláh writes unequivocally that men “can never hope to pass beyond the bounds which by Thy behest and decree have been fixed within their own hearts.”11Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh, CXL. Available at www.bahai.org/r/383694989 We are children of dust, weeds that spring out of that dust, moving forms of dust, and sons of earth. Easily overwhelmed by “shades of utter loss,”12Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words. Available at www.bahai.org/r/944463388 man keeps turning and returning to “water and clay.”13Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words. Available at www.bahai.org/r/944463388 Content “with transient dust”14Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words. Available atwww.bahai.org/r/775010913 he sinks into “the slough of heedlessness”15Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words. Available at www.bahai.org/r/775010913; the meadows of his heart too readily become a “pastures of desire and passion.”16 His hands are too easily soiled by the dust of “self and hypocrisy.”16Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words. Available at www.bahai.org/r/810818726 Within him and about him threatens the abyss of his limitations as he moves with stumbling slowness across the “dust-heap of a mortal world.”17Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words. Available at www.bahai.org/r/921804077

The possibilities within these limits, however, are boundless. Once the reader recognizes his kinship with it, the metaphor invites him further. He realizes that both in the language itself and in the reality of his own being there lies a path across his earth-nature that beckons him beyond those gates he has already seen shimmering before him, a path upon which the particles of dust appear to gleam like gems. His dusty limitations become the expression of his most perfected virtues along these paths of service and ways of sanctity; his humility is his diadem on this highway of love and this pathway of “Thy loved ones.” The essence of his being is molded and sustained by the clay of love and grace, and words—the written expression of man both as mystery and limitation—like atoms of dust hold within them “a door that leadeth … to the station[s] of absolute certitude.”18Bahá’u’lláh, The Kitáb-i-Íqán. Available at www.bahai.org/r/729558295 Through such words “the rivers of Divine utterance”19Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, XVIII. Available at www.bahai.org/r/425325847 have flowed and caused the “tender herbs of wisdom and understanding”20Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, XVIII. Available at www.bahai.org/r/425325847 to spring from the soil of his heart, and from such soil the hyacinths of a greater knowledge may also grow. Indeed, such a heart is not merely “a garden of eternal delight”21Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words. Available at www.bahai.org/r/921804077 but a throne sanctified for His descent, a Sinai upon which His mysteries are vouchsafed, a place whose loftiness and dignity should never be defiled.

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

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

To begin with he finds himself among those who “stand(s) at the gate of the city of Thy nearness”22Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. LXXXIII. Available at www.bahai.org/r/906443921 and is granted the inestimable bounty of approaching the courts of His presence, the canopy of His majesty and the precincts of His mercy. By the light of God “concealed in the well-hidden pavilions” he is able to see the path clearly enough before him and watch as it ascends “into the loftiest chambers of paradise.” With his whole being poised to follow in the direction of this insight, he sets himself towards “the adored sanctuary of Thy Revelation and of Thy Beauty”23Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. CL. Available at www.bahai.org/r/424129344 and is able to draw nearer “the habitation of Thy throne.”24Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. LXXI. Available at www.bahai.org/r/877249228 Finally, in his blessedness, he finds that he has “entered Thy presence and caught the accents of Thy voice.”25Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. LXXI. Available at www.bahai.org/r/877249228

It is here, in this dazzling proximity where he can cling to the hem of His Robe, smell the musk-scented perfume of His hair and hear the Words that flow from His “sugar-shedding lips,”26Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words. Available at www.bahai.org/r/725404749 that the reader confronts another paradox. He realizes that his considered proximity is nothing but remoteness in relation to the magnitude beyond the metaphor:

Now that Thou hast made them to abide under the shade of the canopy of Thy mercy, do Thou assist them to attain what must befit so august a station. Suffer them not, O my Lord, to be numbered with them who, though enjoying near access to Thee, have been kept back from recognizing Thy face, and who, though meeting with Thee, are deprived of Thy presence …27Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. LXXXV. Available at www.bahai.org/r/337730441

It is by now a familiar paradox and has been met before, but the relative simplicity of its presence in a single word such as “dust” is further enhanced and its orbit of association and implication widened as the complexity of the language forces the reader to reconsider his original discovery through the application of a whole metaphor. Then again, within the image itself, are a number of layers of comprehension which the reader might approach. The topical allusions alone, with their disturbing reference to the treachery and egoism which constantly surrounded the Blessed Beauty both from within and without His household, are a disconcerting enough interpretation of this paradox. But there is also an uneasy immediacy in these words which applies to the present instant in which they are being read, and implicates the reader as he stands preoccupied by his reading and is equally threatened by his preoccupation “from having near access to Thee and from attaining the court of Thy glory.”28Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. LXXXV. Available at www.bahai.org/r/832218644

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

Others were able to approach Thee but were kept back from beholding Thy face. Still others were permitted in their eagerness to look upon Thee, to enter the precincts of Thy court, but they allowed the veils of the imaginations of Thy creatures and the wrongs inflicted by the oppressors among Thy people to come in between them and Thee.29Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. LXXXV. Available at www.bahai.org/r/832218644

Separation also has its own perverse architecture, for below the ascending tiers of court and pavilion that provide the pedestrian mind of the reader with a measure of the proximity of his Goal, there is a converse motion possible, down into “this darksome well which the vain imaginations of Thine adversaries have built, down farther into this blind pit which the idle fancies of the wicked among Thy creatures have digged.”30Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. CLXXVI. Available at www.bahai.org/r/909084691 Suffocated by remoteness in the stale and cavernous dungeons of his separation from God the reader might also be dwelling “in a place within whose walls no voice can be heard except the sound of the echo, a place of thick darkness”31Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. LXV. Available at www.bahai.org/r/283879331 in which “the croaking of the raven”32Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, CLXI. Available at www.bahai.org/r/851820312 obliterates the melodies of the very Words he reads. The Most Great Prison and the Síyáh-Chál become symbols of the contingent world bearing down upon the soul aspiring towards God. Just as gates were the means of literal and metaphorical approach and were always open, always beckoning, so prisons and the constraint of chains and veils are also always present, threatening and denying the seeker access to his Beloved. This separation, whether imposed from within or from without, is significantly felt at the instant when proximity seems imminent. “This is the Day,” Bahá’u’llah states, “whereon every atom of the earth hath been made to vibrate and cry out: ‘O Thou Who art the Revealer of signs and the King of creation! I, verily, perceive the fragrance of Thy presence. …’”33Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. CLXXVI. Available at www.bahai.org/r/740818506 But within the same passage this very atom declares:

I know not, however, O Thou the Beloved of the world and the Desire of the nations, the place wherein the throne of Thy majesty hath been established, nor the seat which hath been made Thy footstool, and been illumined with the splendors of the light of Thy face.34Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. CLXXVI. Available at www.bahai.org/r/740818506

The “unknowing” that must always impose itself between the reader and the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh is an ancient formless tradition in mystical poetry and finds its most tangible expression in the imagery of this Revelation. What was a cloud in an earlier dispensation is transformed by Bahá’u’lláh’s pen, and through the metaphors of separation, becomes an intensely felt, almost physical anguish. At the instant that the reader grasps the significance of the Words he reads, he becomes overwhelmed by his devastating unworthiness to approach such meaning. He realizes, moreover, that the meaning he has grasped is necessarily puny and pathetic, a play of shadows, a feeble echo of “the Kingdom of Thy Names” which is far above his comprehension and is itself “created through the movement of Thy fingers and trembleth for fear of Thee.”35Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. CLXXVI. Available at www.bahai.org/r/684005534 The burst of praise that rises to his lips is a mere reflection of those same limitations against which he has striven with such zeal:

Whatsoever hath been adorned with the robe of words is but Thy creation which hath been generated in Thy realm and begotten through the operation of Thy will and is wholly unworthy of Thy highness and falleth short of Thine excellence.36Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. CLXXVI. Available at www.bahai.org/r/062387424

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

And at whatever time my pen ascribeth glory to any one of Thy names, methinks I can hear the voice of its lamentation in its remoteness from Thee, and can recognize its cry because of its separation from Thy Self.37Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. LXXVI. Available at www.bahai.org/r/344214198

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

It should be remembered in this connection that the one true God is in Himself exalted above proximity and remoteness. His reality transcends such limitations. His relationship to His creatures knoweth no degrees. That some are near and others are far is to be ascribed to the manifestations themselves.38Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, XCIII. Available at www.bahai.org/r/235886968

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

Since God must remain unknowable and above all degree, and since the language of limitation is the only means whereby man can either know or express his unknowing, it becomes clear that the Manifestation becomes the spiritual reality of words, of metaphors and of language. He is the Word, the Primal Point, the song of the Nightingale; He holds within Him both extremes of proximity and remoteness in their most perfect balance; He is the vivid and acute stillness at the heart of all the polarities experienced by the reader, the seeker, the lover and believer. The palpable remoteness that lay couched in the imagery of dust all the way from the path through the gates to the Placeless, the play of attraction that resonated in the language of the lover, the tangible space that existed throughout the vast architecture of courts and kingship, all compel the reader to recognize his reliance on language as his only means of understanding, and recognize at the same time that any language other than that of the Manifestation, any word other than that most mighty Word, and any name that is not the King of Names, cannot hope to transcend the limitations of dust. This recognition or confession of the reader’s powerlessness to strive beyond the limits of his understanding, or travel further than the Words themselves will go, constitutes “the utmost limit to which they who lift their hearts to Thee can rise”39Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. LVIII. Available at www.bahai.org/r/556699770; it is the highest station afforded both reader and seeker, for in this condition they come closest to discovering the “hidden gift” in the written storehouse of the Manifestation of God, and admit to “their impotence to attain the retreats of Thy Sublime Knowledge.”

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

Where can separation from Thee be found, O my God, so that reunion with Thee may be clearly recognized at the appearance of the light of Thy unity and the revelation of the splendors of the Sun of Thy oneness?40Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. CLXXVI. Available at www.bahai.org/r/581711640

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

I, therefore, beseech Thee, by this very powerlessness which is beloved of Thee, and which Thou hast decreed as the goal of them that have reached and attained Thy court … not to deprive them that have set their hopes on Thee of the wonders of Thy mercy, nor to withhold from such as have sought Thee the treasures of Thy grace.41Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. LVIII. Available at www.bahai.org/r/556699770

Part of the mysterious subtlety and power of Bahá’u’lláh’s language lies in the contrapuntal relationship between the grounds of His beseeching and its appeal. Often, as in the beautiful Dawn Prayer for the Fast, one cannot comprehend the object for which one is beseeching without listening more closely to the grounds on which one’s appeal is raised. In this case the reader calls for grace to support and protect his limitations “by this very powerlessness which is beloved of Thee.”42Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. LVIII. Available at www.bahai.org/r/556699770

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

I entreat Thee, by Thy footsteps in this wilderness, and by the words “Here am I. Here am I.” which Thy chosen Ones have uttered in this immensity, and by the breaths of Thy Revelation and the gentle winds of the Dawn of Thy Manifestation, to ordain that I may gaze on Thy Beauty and observe whatsoever is in Thy Book.43Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. CLXXXIII. Available at www.Bahái.org/r/382716458