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
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).
Human history abounds with examples of oppression and injustice inflicted by one group on another. Over the centuries, ideologically sanctioned patterns of prejudice, distrust, and suspicion have given rise to norms of exclusiveness, aggression, and violence toward those outside one’s own social group. Ironically, religion, which has the potential to transcend other group affiliations in uniting people into a community, has itself been the cause of some of the most bitter, violent, and seemingly unsolvable conflicts between peoples. Yet, even while religion has often been used to justify prejudice and hostility against other groups, religious scriptures have furnished inspiring appeals to altruism and enduring exhortations to embrace the “other”.
Despite the pattern of group divisiveness, human history also contains examples of acts that defy this pattern: individuals who risk their lives to save others, who refuse to collaborate in acts of oppression even though in doing so they set themselves apart and risk ostracism or even death. Yet, in spite of the high cultural regard for valiant individual examples of moral heroism, societies have generally been slow to promote altruistic behavior as a model to be emulated; they have not deliberately encouraged the development of “altruistic personalities” able to transcend self-interest and group affiliation. However, it is precisely in those examples of altruistic acts that a glimmer of hope can be discerned for a solution to the monumental dysfunction that plagues human societies today, as well as solid evidence that human nature is not innately and incorrigibly aggressive and egocentric—that human beings are genuinely capable of selflessness and extensive behavior toward all people, regardless of the group to which they belong. This article will examine some of the ways in which the Bahá’í Faith combines the unifying function of religion with altruism in its aspiration to develop an altruistically oriented global society.
Located in over two hundred countries, the Bahá’í Faith has recently been identified as the second most widely distributed religion (geographically) after Christianity.1Barret, D.B., “World Religious Statistics.” Encyclopedia Britannica Book of the Year (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1988), p. 303. Although the Bahá’í Faith originated in nineteenth-century Írán, the vast majority of its multiracial and multicultural membership is now located in other countries, especially in the Third World, with the largest national community being in India. The Bahá’í religion has no clergy; its community administration is conducted by elected councils of nine members at the local, national, and international levels. The Bahá’í teachings are contained in the writings of Bahá’u’lláh, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and Shoghi Effendi. Bahá’ís accept these works as authoritative texts and the definitive model for belief and behavior, as well as the blueprint for social transformation and for the global social order that is the religion’s ultimate goal.2Universal House of Justice, The Promise of World Peace (Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 1985).
Bahá’ís aim to transform civilization by transforming themselves and their own social institutions on the basis of principles contained in the Bahá’í scriptures. Both altruism and extensivity—a pattern of personal commitment and responsibility that embraces diverse groups of people3Oliner, Samuel P., and Pearl . Oliner, “Promoting Extensive Altruistic Bonds: A Conceptual elaboration and Some Pragmatic Implications.” In Embracing the Other: Philosophical, Psychological, and Historial Perspective on Altruism. Ed. Pearl M. Oliner, et al (New York: New York University Press, 1992). —are fundamental components of Bahá’í belief and practice, a factor that has important implications for the global society Bahá’ís are attempting to construct.
The social change envisioned by Bahá’ís involves interrelated and interactive processes of individual and structural transformation. Individual transformation embodies more than a profession of belief; it is viewed as a process of acquiring distinctive personal characteristics and demonstrating them in social interactions as well as in working, together with other Bahá’ís, to develop the emerging Bahá’í social institutions.
In the Bahá’í view, spiritual life is not separated from the realm of social relations but integrated with it. The Bahá’í teachings shift the primary focus of religious practice from individual salvation or enlightenment to the collective progress of humanity as a whole.4Arbab, Farzam, “The Process of Social Transformation.” In The Bahá’í Faith and Marxism: Proceedings of a Conference Held January 1986 (Ottawa: Association for Bahá’í Studies, 1987), p. 10.
Those teachings address social conditions and global problems as directly related to the individual’s spiritual life: issues of world peace, the equality of men and women, harmony between science and religion, the equitable distribution of wealth and resources, and the elimination of prejudice are, for Bahá’ís, inseparable from religious belief and practice.
Such an emphasis on collective progress has important implications for the relationship of individual entities—whether individual persons, nations, or other groups—to the larger society of which they form a part. As Shoghi Effendi wrote in 1936, that relationship is essentially based on the principle of the subordination of “every particularistic interest, be it personal, regional, or national, to the paramount interests of humanity….”5Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh: Selected Letters (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing trust, 1974), p. 198.
This principle, in turn, is based on the idea that, in a world of inter-dependent peoples and nations the advantage of the part is best to be reached by the advantage of the whole, and that no abiding benefit can be conferred upon the component parts if the general interests of the entity itself are ignored or neglected.
Yet, the interests of humanity as a whole are not conceptualized in terms of a vague abstraction that could be appropriated by a particular dominant group and interpreted as identical with its own interests, but rather as a complex dynamic relationship between the parts and the whole, in which the viability of the whole is served by ensuring the well-being of all its individual parts, an enterprise for which all share responsibility.
This conception is demonstrated at its most basic in the relationship of the individual person and society. Although that relationship is, as Shoghi Effendi has stated, “essentially based on the principle of the subordination of the individual will to that of society,” a complex balance is sought between individual freedom and responsibility, in which the individual is neither suppressed nor excessively exalted. Cooperation between society and the individual is stressed, as is the fostering of “a climate in which the untold potentialities of the individual members of society can develop….”6Universal House of Justice, Individual Rights and Freedoms in the World Order of Bahá’u’lláh: A Statement by the Universal House of Justice (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing trust, 1989), p. 20.
Such a relationship, as it is envisioned, “must allow ‘free scope’ for ‘individuality to assert itself’ through modes of spontaneity, initiative and diversity that ensure the viability of society.” Thus, even while the will of the individual is subordinated to that of society, “the individual is not lost in the mass but becomes the focus of primary development….”7Universal House of Justice, Individual Rights and Freedoms in the World Order of Bahá’u’lláh: A Statement by the Universal House of Justice (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing trust, 1989), pp. 20-21. The fulfillment of individual potential is to be sought not in pursuing self-centered desires but in contributing to the well-being of others, and “the honor and distinction of the individual consist in this, that he among all the world’s multitudes should become a source of social good.”8‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Secret of Divine Civilization (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing trust, 1975), p. 2.
As Farzam Arbab has noted, this shift of emphasis to the progress of humanity is also reflected in the importance given to specific qualities that Bahá’ís are enjoined to acquire, qualities that promote prosocial behavior and lead to unity: for example, justice is stressed more than charity, and the acquisition of attitudes conducive to human solidarity is valued over simple tolerance. Even the qualities of love and of detachment from the material world are conceived of as active and social rather than passive and inwardly directed:
…the social dimension is also enhanced through the expansion of the meaning of most qualities to include a social vision. Love includes the abolition of social prejudices and the realization of the beauty of diversity in the human race. Detachment from the world is not taught in a way that leads to idleness and to the acceptance of oppression: it is acquired to free us from our own material interests in order to dedicate ourselves to the well-being of others. To this expansion of the meaning of almost all qualities is also added a constant endeavor to acquire social skills, to participate in meetings of consultation, to work in groups … to reach and carry out collective decisions.9Arbab, “Process,” p. 11.
Thus, he concludes, the Bahá’í path of sipiritualization “should not be confused with one that defines goodness passively and produces a human being whose greatest virtue is not to harm anyone; it is a path to create social activists and agents of change.”10Arbab, “Process,” p. 11.
Altruism is a major component of that desired social change and figures prominently in the Bahá’í texts. Many scriptural exhortations delineate altruistic norms explicitly, holding in high regard those who “nurture altruistic aims and plans for the well-being of their fellow men…“11‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writing of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 1978), p. 72. and urging individuals to “be ready to lay down your lives one for the other, and not only for those who are dear to you, but for all humanity.“12‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks: Addresses given by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Paris in 1911 (London: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1969), p. 170.
Other teachings reflect values and attitudes that, as Oliner and Oliner report in The Altruistic Personality, are conducive to an altruistic orientation. These include a sense of unity with and responsibility toward others beyond one’s own social group, a strong family orientation, emphasis on relationship rather than on status, generosity, trustworthiness, appreciation of diversity, as well as ethical values of justice and caring.
Unity and interdependence, and their link to helping behavior, are prominent themes in the Bahá’í texts, often expressed through organic metaphors, as in this passage from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh:
The utterance of God is a lamp, whose light is these words: Ye are the fruits of one tree and the leaves of one branch. Deal ye one with another with the utmost love and harmony…. So powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole earth.13Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writing of Bahá’u’lláh (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1976), p. 288.
Explaining this metaphorical reference, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá writes that because all humans are interconnected and mutually dependent, they must “powerfully sustain one another” by caring for each other:
Let them at all times concern themselves with doing a kindly thing for one of their fellows, offering to someone love, consideration, thoughtful help. Let them see no one as their enemy, or as wishing them ill, but think of all humankind as their friends; regarding the alien as an intimate, the stranger as a companion, staying free of prejudice, drawing no lines.14Selections, pp.1-2.
The theme of inclusiveness is emphasized in every aspect of Bahá’í individual and community life, beginning with the fundamental teachings of the oneness of humanity and the unity of religion. The Bahá’í teachings view divine revelation not as a static, unique event, but as a continuing process that is the central feature of human history. The spirit that inspired all the founders of the great religions of the past, the Manifestations of God, is recognized as one and the same. Their original teachings contain the same basic, unchanging spiritual and ethical precepts, prominent among which are the teachings that promote altruism. The tenets that change from one religious dispensation to another are the social laws and practices, which apply those precepts in specific forms. Thus, religious truth is understood to be relative, progressive, and developmental.
Such a perspective implies more than tolerance for the equality of individual religions as separate entities to be respected in a pluralistic society. It redefines the nature of their relationship to one another and thus sets new terms for a definition of identity based on connection rather than separation. Unlike religious groups who define themselves by their distinction from other groups based on the claim that their founder was the sole or the final source of truth or that their practices are the only correct form of worship, the Bahá’í religious tradition accepts all the great spiritual teachers as equals. Bahá’ís are expected to revere Buddha, Zoroaster, Moses, Jesus, and Muḥammad, as well as Bahá’u’lláh, recognizing in them all the same spirit of the mediator between God and humanity. Thus, although the body of teachings composing the Bahá’í religion itself cannot accurately be called eclectic, the Bahá’í religious tradition includes all of the previous dispensations, which are viewed as “different stages in the eternal history and constant evolution of one religion, Divine and indivisible, of which it [the Bahá’í Faith] itself forms but an integral part.”15World Order, p. 114.
From the Bahá’í perspective, the principle of the unity of religion and progressive revelation restores the unific role of religion in society, providing a basis for resolving long-standing, apparently unbridgeable divisions among religious communities as well as a resolution of the dilemma posed by the existence of numerous religions, each claiming divine origin. For Bahá’ís, the principle removes any pretext for disunity deriving from religious affiliation; in fact, all religious conflict is forbidden. The Bahá’í writings direct Bahá’ís to “love… all religions and all races with a love that is true and sincere and show that love through deeds…”;16Selections, p.69. to exert their efforts so that “the tumult of religious dissension and strife that agitateth the peoples of the earth may be stilled, that every trace of it may be completely obliterated.“17Gleanings, p. 288. “That the divers communions of the earth, and the manifold systems of religious belief,” Bahá’u’lláh writes, “should never be allowed to foster the feelings of animosity among men, is in this Day, of the essence of the Faith of God and His Religion.”18Gleanings, p. 287. Affirming the preeminence of the principle of religious inclusiveness and unity, the Bahá’í writings go so far as to state that if religion becomes the cause of division and disunity, it is better to have no religion at all.19‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace: Talks Delivered by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá during His Visit to the United States and Canada in 1912. (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1975) p. 117.
Closely linked to the principle of the unity of religion is the distinguishing feature of the Bahá’í dispensation: the principle of the oneness and wholeness of humanity. The full equality of all members of the human species and their close relationship to one another requires that Bahá’ís regard people from all racial, religious, ethnic, class, and national backgrounds as members of one global family. Rather than offering mere “symbols of internationalism” in the hope that these might, as Allport suggested, “provide mental anchorage points around which the idea of world-loyalty may develop,”20Allport, Gordon W., The Nature of Prejudice (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1954), p. 44. the Bahá’í religion begins with the underlying principle of world loyalty and human unity, which is itself the anchorage point, “the pivot,” according to Shoghi Effendi, “round which all the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh revolve….”21World Order, p.42.
The extension of the individual’s personal commitments and relationships to include the diverse groups composing humanity is repeatedly urged in Bahá’í texts in the strongest terms possible—that is, as no less than a divine commandment:
In every dispensation, there hath been the commandment of fellowship and love, but it was a commandment limited to the community of those in mutual agreement, not to the dissident foe. In this wondrous age, however, praised be God, the commandments of god are not delimited, not restricted to any one group of people; rather have all the friends been commanded to show forth fellowship and love, consideration and generosity and loving-kindness to every community on earth.22Selections, pp. 20-21.
Far from being an abstract principle removed from the real social conditions, the unity of humankind must be lived in practice, as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá told a gathering in Europe in 1912:
Do not be content with showing friendship in words alone…
When you meet a [stranger]… speak to him as to a friend; if he seems to be lonely try to help him, give him of your willing service; if he be sad console him, if poor succor him, if oppressed rescue him… what profit is there in agreeing that universal friendship is good, and talking of the solidarity of the human race as a grand ideal? Unless these thoughts are translated into the world of action, they are useless.23Paris Talks, p. 16.
Although the Bahá’í writings speak of the absolute equality of all, the intent is not sameness or conformity to a dominant culture, nation, race, class, or any other group. In theory and in practice, cultural and racial diversity is valued in the Bahá’í community. Along with the expression of the ideal, a conscious awareness exists that effort is necessary to break down age-old barriers of prejudice and separation. The cultivation of friendships with people of different backgrounds is repeatedly encouraged, but perhaps the most notable evidence of the Bahá’í commitment to interracial unity is the attitude toward interracial marriage, which is actively welcomed and encouraged in the Bahá’í writings.
In consonance with the prosocial orientation of the Bahá’í teachings, the ideal Bahá’í personality, as implied in the Bahá’í scriptures, is other centered, extensive, and altruistic. In one passage, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá makes altruism itself the touchstone for a new definition of true human nature:
…man should be willing to accept hardships for himself in order that others may enjoy wealth; he should enjoy trouble for himself that other may enjoy happiness and well-being. This is the attribute of man….
He who is so hard-hearted as to think only of his own comfort, such an one will not be called man.
Man is he who forgets his own interests for the sake of others. His own comfort he forfeits for the well-being of all. Nay, rather, his own life must he be willing to forfeit for the life of mankind.24‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Foundations of World Unity (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1979), p. 42.
Although personal transformation is seen as a lifelong process, according to the Bahá’í texts, the foundations of altruistic behavior can be developed in childhood. Children are believed to be born with the capacity for good or bad behavior; during the course of their development they can be influenced by their social interactions, especially in the family. Thus, the development of the prosocial individual begins with the training and socialization of children. The Bahá’í writings urge parents to
teach [children] to dedicate their lives to matters of great import, and inspire them to undertake studies that will benefit mankind.25Selections, p. 129. So crucial is the teaching of prosocial behavior that training in morals and good conduct is far more important than book learning.26Selections, p. 135.
However, teaching children lofty ideas is not considered sufficient on its own. Emphasis is repeatedly placed upon behavior rather than profession of belief—on deeds, not words. Thus, the most powerful method by which children can be taught a prosocial orientation is the model of parents whose actions reflect the ideal personality characteristics.
The impact of modeling on children has received significant support in the literature on altruism and prosocial behavior. Mussen and Eisenberg-Berg write, “A substantial proportion of the individual’s helping and sharing responses is acquired through observation and imitation of a model’s behavior without direct reinforcements.”27Mussen, P., and N. Eisenberg-Berg, Roots of Caring, Sharing, and Helping: The Development of Prosocial Behavior in Children (San Francisco: Freeman, 1977), p. 31. Yarrow, Scott, and Waxler conclude that “generalized altruism would appear to be best learned from parents who do not only try to inculcate the principles of altruism, but who also manifest altruism in everyday interactions.”28Yarrow, M.R., P. Scott, and C.Z. Waxler, “Learning Concern for Others.” Developmental Psychology (1973), p. 256. The role of parental influence in fostering the development of the altruistic personality has been further underscored by Oliner and Oliner in The Altruistic Personality, their study of rescuers of Jews during World War II.29Oliner, Samuel P., and Pearl M. Oliner, The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe (New York: Free Press, 1988).
Another area of related emphasis is parental discipline. The Bahá’í writings state that, “It is incumbent upon every father and mother to counsel their children over a long period, and guide them unto those things which lead to everlasting honour.”30Selections, p. 134. The development of good character and behavior in children, however, is to be encouraged through the love, understanding, and wise guidance of the parents, using reason rather than force. Bahá’í texts strongly discourage the use of physical punishment or verbal abuse of children, stating that, “it is not… permissible to strike a child, or vilify him for the child’s character will be totally perverted if he be subjected to blows or verbal abuse.”31Selections, p. 125.
The Bahá’í view on parental discipline is supported by contemporary social psychologists. Hoffman, as well as others, suggests that the use of physical power or material resources to control a child’s behavior (power assertion) is least effective in developing consideration for others. Power-assertion techniques of discipline promote in children aggressive behavior, self-centered values, and an unwillingness to share with other children.32Hoffman, Martin, “Moral Internalization, Parental Power, and the Nature of Parent-Child Interaction.” Developmental Psychology 11 (1975) pp. 228-239. In contrast, the disciplinary technique of induction—reasoning and explanation based on the impact of the child’s behavior on others—encourages prosocial behavior.33Mussen and Eisenberg-Berg, Roots.
Bahá’í child socialization aims to develop a prosocial orientation in children, who are encouraged to recognize themselves as members of a community that begins with the family and extends to include all of humanity. They are encouraged to develop a sense of personal spiritual responsibility to act toward others with empathy and compassion as well as justice and equity, and to sacrifice their own material self-interests for others in need. As adults, Bahá’ís are expected to make a commitment to continue internalizing such patterns until they become the foundation of the personality itself. Spiritual development is seen as an infinite process of self-transformation—that is, a continual, conscious refining of one’s behavior in the crucible of social interaction. The cultivation of spiritual, altruistic qualities remains the aim and central focus of life for the adult Bahá’í.
In light of recent research, it is noteworthy that both the ethical principles of justice and of caring, important motivators of altruistic behavior (see Oliner and Oliner, The Altruistic Personality), are emphasized in the Bahá’í writings, where they are not viewed as contradictory or exclusive but as inseparably connected. Even when the ethic of justice is enjoined, it is usually as a practice to be performed out of concern for others. Justice is presented as the practice of equity, often linked with “safeguard[ing] the rights of the downtrodden….”34Gleanings, p. 247. The Bahá’í conception of justice means that all have a right to receive care.
Well over half a century before Carol Gilligan called attention to the complementarity of the “masculine” ethic of justice and the “feminine” ethic of caring,35Gilligan, Carol, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982). ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had written: “The Kingdom of God is founded upon equity and justice, and also upon mercy, compassion, and kindness to every living soul. Strive ye then with all your heart to treat compassionately all humankind….” He then qualified this statement, asserting that oppression must be opposed: “Kindness cannot be shown the tyrant, the deceiver, or the thief, because, far from awakening them to the error of their ways, it maketh them to continue in their perversity as before.”36Selections, p. 158.
The Bahá’í teachings recognize that the transformation of individuals into altruistic persons cannot take place outside the social context, which must provide a matrix for that transformation. Recent research has drawn attention to the importance of group norms in motivating moral behavior, whether directly, as a response to the social expectations as such, or indirectly, as internalized personal norms.37Reykowski, Janusz, “Motivation of Prosocial Behavior.” In Cooperation and Helping Behavior: Theories and Research, ed. V.J. Derlaga and J. Gri-
The findings of Oliner and Oliner, outlined in The Altruistic Personality, further emphasize the importance of the “normocentric” orientation in motivating the altruism of rescuers of Jews during World War II.
Such findings imply that, while altruistic qualities must be fostered in individuals, a social framework must also be provided within which extensivity and altruism are valued and represent the norms of the group itself. The creation of such a society is inseparable from the development of individual altruistic personalities, for, so long as groups value egocentrism, unfettered individualism, status seeking, dominance, and a materialistic orientation, altruism will remain an exception to the rule, and the altruistic personality will appear as deviant in comparison to the rest of the group. In Bahá’í society, this situation is reversed:
Altruism is not an aberrant behavior contrary to convention because the normative expectations (which individuals are ultimately expected to internalize) are altruistic. It is beyond the scope of this discussion to describe in its entirety the social order Bahá’ís envision and to which they are committed. However, they believe that much of it will be the fruit of the process of integration of now isolated or even hostile races, groups, and nations who, as they come together and unite in the same cause, become transformed and help transform each other, and bring to the rising institutions of a new World Order the richness of different cultures and of different social thought and experience.38Arbab, “Process,” p. 11.
Thus, in the Bahá’í view, it is through the individual practice as well as the institutionalization of the principle of unity in diversity that human society can evolve to an unprecedented level of cohesion and cooperation, and transcend the limitations implicit in the current state of separation and competitiveness. While the Bahá’í conception of unity in diversity should not be construed as merely a version of liberal pluralism, the safeguarding and encouraging of diverse elements within the Bahá’í community is a major institutional principle. It is embedded within Bahá’í institutions through practices that require the participation and support of the entire Bahá’í community because they apply at all levels of administrative and community functioning—local, national, and international.
Most prominent of these practices is consultation, a group decision-making process whose goal is to reach solutions to problems by consensus. Bahá’í consultation encourages the open and frank expression of diverse views on the topic under discussion in an atmosphere of love and respect that also allow the “clash of differing opinions” that can strike the “shining spark of truth”.39Bahá’í Administration, p. 21.
Each member of the consultative group has an equal right of expression, and no blocs, factions, or any subdivision of the group are permitted. Inseparable from the Bahá’í consultative process is the development of sensitivity and respect for the different voices whose expressions of opinion may not fit into conventional or dominant cultural modes of communication. Since the group attempts to work toward consensus on an issue, voting only as a last resort, the process does not necessarily require reduction to duality: alternatives need not be narrowed down to the two poles “for” and “against”. Instead, the consultative process itself, drawing on the interactive contributions of all its diverse members, is looked to as the creative source of new solutions.
Consultation is regarded both as a method for generative decision making and conflict resolution as well as an instrument for reinforcing the unity of a diverse group. It is the method by which the Bahá’í administrative institutions conduct the affairs of the Bahá’í community, but Bahá’ís are also encouraged to use consultation in all aspects of their lives, whether in the family, neighborhood, or workplace.
Another way in which Bahá’í administrative institutions are structured to implement unity in diversity involves practices intended to ensure the participation of minority ethnic populations. (The definition of what constitutes a “minority” is left to the discretion of the national institution in each country.) “To discriminate against any race, on the ground of its being socially backward, politically immature, and numerically in a minority”, is considered to be “a flagrant violation of the spirit” of the Bahá’í teachings.40Each member of the consultative group has an equal right of expression, and no blocs, factions, or any subdivision of the group are permitted. Inseparable from the Bahá’í consultative process is the development of sensitivity and respect for the different voices whose expressions of opinion may not fit into conventional or dominant cultural modes of communication. Since the group attempts to work toward consensus on an issue, voting only as a last resort, the process does not necessarily require reduction to duality: alternatives need not be narrowed down to the two poles “for” and “against”. Instead, the consultative process itself, drawing on the interactive contributions of all its diverse members, is looked to as the creative source of new solutions. Consultation is regarded both as a method for generative decision making and conflict resolution as well as an instrument for reinforcing the unity of a diverse group. It is the method by which the Bahá’í administrative institutions conduct the affairs of the Bahá’í community, but Bahá’ís are also encouraged to use consultation in all aspects of their lives, whether in the family, neighborhood, or workplace. Another way in which Bahá’í administrative institutions are structured to implement unity in diversity involves practices intended to ensure the participation of minority ethnic populations. (The definition of what constitutes a “minority” is left to the discretion of the national institution in each country.) “To discriminate against any race, on the ground of its being socially backward, politically immature, and numerically in a minority”, is considered to be “a flagrant violation of the spirit” of the Bahá’í teachings. In principle, protecting the “just interests of any minority element within the Bahá’í community” and ensuring that all have the opportunity to contribute their perspectives to collaborative efforts of the group, is considered so important that representatives of minority populations “are not only enabled to enjoy equal rights and privileges, but they are even favored and accorded priority.”41Universal House of Justice, Messages from the Universal House of Justice 1968-1973 (Wilmette, Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1976), p. 49. Bahá’í communities are instructed that it is their duty to ensure that “Bahá’í representative institutions, be they Assemblies, conventions, conferences, or committees, may have represented on them as many of these divers elements, racial or otherwise, as possible.”42Advent, p. 36.
One way in which the principle is practiced is the minority tie rule of Bahá’í elections. In the course of elections for Bahá’í administrative institutional membership—elections conducted without nominations or campaigning and decided by plurality vote—if voting results in a tie between persons, one of whom represents a minority, “priority should unhesitatingly be accorded the party representing the minority, and this for no other reason except to stimulate and encourage it, and afford it an opportunity to further the interests of the community.”43Advent, p. 35.
In addition to its direct effect in increasing minority representation on Bahá’í administrative institutions, the practice of this rule heightens the sensitivity of the group to its minority membership and reaffirms the group commitment to valuing and encouraging minority participation. For the individual believer, conceding a tie vote to the minority representation becomes a concrete opportunity to practice sacrifice of self-interest for the other within a context of social approval.
Whether applied in community administration, in the family, in education, or in the economy, the Bahá’í principles and practices are viewed as catalysts whose application will ultimately bring about social transformation leading to the development of an altruistic global society. Such a society, in the Bahá’í context, begins with the individual striving daily toward personal transformation—the deliberate internalization of spiritual teachings incorporating altruistic, extensive values as personal norms. The Bahá’í teachings strive to imbue individuals with an inclusive orientation transcending, though not suppressing, other group loyalties and valuing the well-being of the entire planet and all its inhabitants. Throughout the Bahá’í writings, the vision imparted to the individual is that of a peaceful, just, and caring civilization whose foundation rests on the cornerstone of the unity of all human beings, a unity that is to be consolidated and protected by institutions which reflect and promote the principles of unity, equity, and altruistic service as normative expectations.