Before I get into the details of this book, I thought I’d start by giving a bit of background on Abdu’l-Baha. He was born in 1844, and spent most of his life in exile or imprisonment beside his father, Baha’u’llah. Baha’u’llah was first thrown into prison when Abdu’l-Baha was 8; a few months later, he was released and forced into exile to Baghdad. This was when Abdu’l-Baha began sharing the same fate as his father, continuing in a state of exile or imprisonment until he was finally released in 1908. That’s 56 years of imprisonment or forced exile, including after the death of Baha’u’llah, after which Abdu’l-Baha took over Guardianship of the Faith. Despite this extended period of exile and imprisonment, Abdu’l-Baha was extremely well read and intelligent, and spoke at length about a great many topics with rather remarkable precision. One of the topics he wrote about was a diatribe about the steps necessary to establish an effective, long lasting, healthy civilization.
The Secret of Divine Civilization feels to a certain extent like the culmination of years of Abdu’l-Baha’s frustration at the idiocy and ignorance being practiced in Persia at the time. Frankly, I can’t blame him. His calls for reform have still not been heeded, even though they seem to make eminent sense on every count. He calls for at least basic education in every town (compulsory if needs be), he urges the Muslim population to re-embrace science and technology, pointing out with a variety of scriptures from the Qu’ran exactly why these are not bad things simply because they have been already embraced by other cultures. Several times through the book, he pauses to readdress one particular passage that the Imams and other religious leaders have latched onto and propagandized to the masses. One of the last times he brings it up really sums it up best:
The Source of Divine wisdom, that Manifestation of Universal Prophethood (Muhammad), encouraging mankind to acquire sciences and arts and similar advantages has commanded them to seek these even in the furthermost reaches of China; yet the incompetent and caviling doctors forbid this, offering as their justification the saying, ‘He who imitates a people is one of them.’ They have not even grasped what is meant by the ‘imitation’ referred to, nor do they know that the Divine religions enjoin upon and encourage all the faithful to adopt such principles as will conduce to continuous improvements, and to acquire from other peoples sciences and arts. (99)
This really grasps the overall mood of the writing in this piece. It is pretty clear that he loved Persia, and was frustrated at just how much it had fallen into ignorance and disrepair.
Something that I find particularly interesting is the emphasis on Persia. His commentary is pretty directly aimed at the Middle East, with an expectation that once Persia gets its act together, that civilization will revive and sweep the world as the dominant unifying force in the world. Assuming the entire region isn’t glassed over in the not-too-distant future, this isn’t that far outside the realm of possibility. If they merely reclaimed their heritage and instituted social reforms (health, education, technology), they could easily become a major force to be reckoned with on both a cultural and a political front. I’m not entirely sure how this change could be implemented, considering the stranglehold the current leaders in the region have over the populace, but I do strongly feel that it is a change that NEEDS to happen, for both regional and global benefit.
One of the other things that I found interesting about this book was the random, seemingly esoteric bits of information that were included. For instance, though soap has been around for millennia, modern soap is credited as an invention by Abdu’llah Buni, a Muslim. He also goes into the history of the nation of Israel (which had not yet reformed at the time of his writing), commenting on the multiple times they were invaded by various cultures, including by Nebuchadnezzar, and that these invasions and dispersals had been foretold as inevitable as they became too prideful and veered from the true intent of their religious teachings. Though he never said it bluntly, it was fairly apparent that he was casting the same aspersions on the Islamic culture. Of course, the first random thing that I noticed in the work was an Islamic parable about a king who decreed “a day of death” where any who came before him on that day would be put to death. The parable continues as the king goes hunting, and becomes separated from his retinue, and is taken in by a desert family. The king promises them aid should they ever need it, and a few years later, the head of the family shows up coincidentally on the day of the dead. The king didn’t want to kill him, and the man asked for a foregoance for a period of one year (until the next day of death) to set his affairs in order. The king agreed, assuming this would be the last time he saw the man. A year later to the day, the man showed up. The king was surprised, and asked him why he would willingly go to his death. The man’s reply was that he would not refute an oath, and that he had faith in his God. He then explained about his God and Christianity, which so moved the king that he abolished the day of death and became a Christian that day.
The parable makes sense within the context of the writing, as Abdu’l-Baha is using it as an example of how living an upright and proper life can do far more to spread the Word of God than living as a “Prophet of the Sword.” It just surprised me a little, because I’d never seen or heard of Abdu’l-Baha using parable in his writings. I really don’t think this says much other than that the majority of what I’ve read up to this point has not been source material (as this is), so much as consolidations of various passages and writings, collected for “ease”. Though I see the benefit and merits of the collections, there is a certain something to be said for reading the source material in its entirety, instead.
Considering the current state of world affairs, I found this book extremely topical, with a lot of very worthwhile information and ideas. If even some of the advice given in this book were followed, I think we would all be better off. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone seeking further insight into the ideals and philosophy of the Baha’i Faith.
Abdu’l-Baha. The Secret of Divine Civilization. Wilmette: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1990.