The winds of the true springtide are passing over you; adorn yourselves with blossoms like trees in the scented garden.
Spring clouds are streaming; then turn you fresh and verdant like the sweet eternal fields.
The dawn star is shining, set your feet on the true path.
The sea of might is swelling, hasten to the shores of high resolve and fortune.
The pure water of life is welling up, why wear away your days in a desert of thirst?1—Abdu’l-Baha
With these words, Abdu’l-Baha exhorts readers of The Secret of Divine Civilization to arise and strive for humanity’s advancement. He penned this volume while living in exile in Akka, addressing it to His native land, Persia, where it circulated starting in the 1880s. Within a few decades, it had been translated into English. The writer Marzieh Gail produced the current authoritative translation, for which the Hand of the Cause Horace Holley wrote an introduction.
About the timelessness of the book’s themes, Holley opined,
Abdu’l-Baha’s message applies to the general state of modern civilization as a whole, whose traditional imperialism, nationalism, racialism, materialism and sectarianism have brought mankind to the verge of the supreme disaster foretold by prophetic passages in the Sacred Writings of all extant religions. The Secret of Divine Civilization is therefore submitted to the student of society as a treatise which fills the wide gap separating technical politics and technical economics from the very purpose of man’s creation, the establishment of righteousness on earth.2
Indeed, Abdu’l-Baha’s precepts for social development apply not only to the nineteenth-century Persia He addressed, but also to today’s world. Among these are the interdependence of spiritual and material civilization, the necessity of universal education, the requisites for ethical government leaders, and the crying need for international cooperation.
Interdependence of Spiritual & Material Civilization
Although some believe humanity can advance through secular means alone, Abdu’l-Baha asserts that only when people are spiritually motivated will they place the public good above their self-interest:
For self-love is kneaded into the very clay of man, and it is not possible that, without any hope of a substantial reward, he should neglect his own present material good. That individual, however, who puts his faith in God and believes in the words of God…will for the sake of God abandon his own peace and profit and will freely consecrate his heart and soul to the common good.3
For example, when guided by self-interest, the wealthy amass “inordinate riches while the rest are impoverished.”4 Yet, when guided by divine love, they realize their fortunes should be “dedicated to the welfare of society.”5
Indeed, true prosperity depends on spiritual attainments:
The happiness and pride of a nation consist in this, that it should shine out like the sun in the high heaven of knowledge…. 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.6
Only religion can spur countries and their peoples to prioritize the common good, Abdu’l-Baha avers.
Yet, to prevent religion from falling into fanaticism and corruption, Abdu’l-Baha argues that practical education must complement the spiritual:
The primary, the most urgent requirement is the promotion of education. It is inconceivable that any nation should achieve prosperity and success unless this paramount, this fundamental concern is carried forward. The principal reason for the decline and fall of peoples is ignorance.7
Abdu’l-Baha leaves little doubt that advancement depends on universal education.
The wisest and most learned should serve as society’s leaders; Abdu’l-Baha devotes many pages to laying out the qualifications for these “lamps of guidance among the nations, and stars of good fortune shining from the horizons of mankind.8
About elected representatives, Abdu’l-Baha writes that they “must be righteous, God-fearing, high-minded, incorruptible,” as well as “fully cognizant, in every particular, of the laws of God, informed as to the highest principles of law, versed in the rules which govern the management of internal affairs and the conduct of foreign relations, skilled in the useful arts of civilization, and content with their lawful emoluments.”9 Such selfless leaders would be well positioned to foster harmony both within and beyond their nations.
In what is perhaps the most famous passage from The Secret of Divine Civilization, Abdu’l-Baha envisions a global commonwealth:
True civilization will unfurl its banner in the mid-most hart of the world whenever a certain number of its distinguished and high-minded sovereigns—the shining exemplars of devotion and determination—shall, for the good and happiness of all mankind, arise, with firm resolve and clear vision, to establish the Cause of Universal Peace. They must make the Cause of Peace the object of general consultation, and seek by every means in their power to establish a Union of the nations of the world.10
In the rest of this remarkable passage, He explains how this global union should govern international relations. Among its responsibilities would be ensuring collective security:
The fundamental principle underlying this solemn Pact should be so fixed that if any government later violate any one of its provisions, all the governments on earth should arise to reduce it to utter submission, nay the human race as a whole should resolve, with every power at its disposal, to destroy that government.10
With only small forces needed for this purpose, countries could drastically reduce their military expenditures, releasing financial and human resources for more constructive projects.
All readers can benefit from The Secret of Divine Civilization’s stirring vision of our higher purpose, as Abdu’l-Baha calls us to look beyond ourselves and find avenues to serve others. Perhaps the titular “secret” is that everyday people, when empowered through education and love for God, can build the foundation of a just, diverse, divine civilization.
- Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization
- Holley, Horace, 1956, “Introduction,” pp. v-xi. In The Secret of Divine Civilization by Abdu’l-Baha, translated by Marzieh Gail, 1957. National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States of America.
- Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization
This article was originally published on Baha’i Blog.