Sen McGlinn's blog

                                  Reflections on the Bahai teachings


Posted by Sen on March 21, 2009

Is civilization to be ‘ever-advancing,’ or is it limited to moderation?

Baha’u’llah tells us:cultivated1

All men have been created to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization. The Almighty beareth Me witness: To act like the beasts of the field is unworthy of man. Those virtues that befit his dignity are forbearance, mercy, compassion and loving-kindness towards all the peoples and kindreds of the earth. (Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 214)

This gives us a definition of true or moral civilization, which has nothing to do with technical progress, forms of government or urbanisation.

But then in the ‘9th leaf of the Exalted Paradise,’ he says that the civilization of the West has harmed the world, and is a powerful source of corruption:

civil21In all matters moderation is desirable. If a thing is carried to excess, it will prove a source of evil. Consider the civilization of the West, how it hath agitated and alarmed the peoples of the world. … The purging of such deeply-rooted and overwhelming corruptions … (Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 69)

And in the Lawh-e Maqsuud:

civil3Consider for instance such things as liberty, civilization and the like. However much men of understanding may favorably regard them, they will, if carried to excess, exercise a pernicious influence upon men…. (Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 216)

So is civilization to be ever-advancing, or is it limited to moderation?

In the first quotation from Gleanings, the term translated as “civilization” is ‘islaah-ye `aalaam (page 216 in the Persian version of Gleanings, Muntakhabati az Athar-e Hadrat-e Baha’u’llah, available here). This means “the betterment of the world,” and ‘world’ is not necessarily confined to the human: depending on context it can mean the globe and all that is upon it. Using the computer translation aid (CTA) (for which God and the Research Department be praised) we can find other instances of ‘islaah-ye `aalaam in the Writings translated by Shoghi Effendi, and see that he translates it as (the words in bold):

This people have never been, nor are they now, inclined to mischief. Their hearts are illumined with the light of the fear of God, and adorned with the adornment of His love. Their concern hath ever been and now is for the betterment of the world. pastoral2Their purpose is to obliterate differences, and quench the flame of hatred and enmity, so that the whole earth may come to be viewed as one country. (Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 122-3)

My object is none other than the betterment of the world and the tranquillity of its peoples. The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established. (Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 286)

Our hope is that the world’s religious leaders and the rulers thereof will unitedly arise for the reformation of this age and the rehabilitation of its fortunes (Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 215-6)

…let your thoughts be fixed upon that which will rehabilitate the fortunes of mankind and sanctify the hearts and souls of men. This can best be achieved through pure and holy deeds, through a virtuous life and a goodly behavior.
(Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 93; there’s an alternative translation of the same tablet in The Advent of Divine Justice, p. 24-25: The betterment of the world.)

But if we turn to the Lawh-e Maqsuud, which says that “liberty, civilization and the like… will, if carried to excess, exercise a pernicious influence upon men,” the word for civilization is tamaddun, meaning urban life.
And in Gleanings CLXIV:

The civilization, so often vaunted by the learned exponents of arts and sciences, will, if allowed to overleap the bounds of moderation, bring great evil upon men. Thus warneth you He Who is the All-Knowing. If carried to excess, civilization will prove as prolific a source of evil as it had been of goodness when kept within the restraints of moderation. … The day is approaching when its flame will devour the cities… (Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 342-3)

– the word for civilization is again tamaddun.

So we have two distinct concepts, not necessarily opposing (but they can be), but certainly distinct – one meaning the betterment of the world, the other urban life – and both are translated as civilization.

khartoum2We have seen Baha’u’llah’s specific critique of “the civilization of the West” in ‘9th leaf of the Exalted Paradise.’ One of the harms it did was colonialism. The excuse for European colonialism and conquest, that it is necessary to spread the ‘civilization’ of the West, was used not just in Africa and the Americas, but also in the Middle East. Baha’u’llah denounced its effects there in a number of tablets. Two of these, addressed to the Muslim world, are translated by Juan Cole in Modernity and the Millennium p 134, as part of his discussion of Baha’u’llah’s critique of the dark side of the ‘modern’ era:

Today, in truth, the divine party is surrounded and all the others can be seen to besiege it, as you yourself have observed. They [the Europeans] have conquered the lands of Islam under various pretexts… [and] …. The greed and avarice in the hearts of the unbelievers has ignited a blaze. They control a number of countries, and advance over a span of territory with the speed of lightening.

pastoral1So much for outward, or material civilization in the form of urbanisation. Now if we turn to the Manifestations, and the civilizations they raise up, Abdu’l-Baha says in section 3 of Some Answered Questions:

If there were no educator (murabbii: from same root as the Hebrew word rabbi), there would be no such things as comforts, civilization (madaniyyat – implying urban life) or humanity (insaniyyat – the quality of being properly human).

But he then distinguishes 3 kinds of education:

Material education is concerned with the progress and development of the body, through gaining its sustenance, its material comfort and ease.” “Human education signifies civilization (madaniyyat) and progress …


adameveDivine education is that of the Kingdom of God: it consists in acquiring divine perfections, and this is true education; for in this state man becomes the focus of divine blessings, the manifestation of the words, “Let Us make man in Our image, and after Our likeness.” This is the goal of the world of humanity.

We can learn how to obtain comfort even from the animals, and we can learn how to develop urban civilization from other civilizations, or from pure reason, but who teaches us to be truly human, to develop insaniyyat, to achieve our purpose as human beings? Only the divine educator I think. Then the way we can know a divine educator is present, is by this quality of true humanity. “Let Us make man in Our image, and after Our likeness.” Abdu’l-Baha says that the Manifestation will “teach men to organize and carry out physical matters, and to form a social order” (material education) and “establish human education … so that knowledge and science may increase” but he has also said that material education we have in common with the animalshoneycomb (who have not only their nests and ways of acquiring food and protecting themselves, but also social orders). The presence or absence of material education and urban civilization is therefore not a good way of determining the influence or absence of a Manifestation. That means that we cannot expect to directly relate the appearance of the historically recognised great civilisations to the appearance of a Manifestation.

Now if I can return to ‘islaah-ye `aalaam or the betterment of the world: I think it includes the natural world. There is an ‘ethos’ of nature and civilization in the Bahai writings, and they are not in opposition. In this I detect an influence from Zoroastrianism, where the ‘care for the world’ is a central theme (also in some strands of Judaism, perhaps because of the contact with Zoroastrianism). But there is also a practical influence from the physical geography of Iran. In much of the country (the central plateau) the land would not support a hunter-gatherer economy at any level, or even an agrarian lifestyle without urban support, because of the water problem. Without qanats, or underground aqueducts, there could be no habitation, and the qanat needed a substantial social organisation behind it, and delivered its water to people living in one place. qanat1The water supply and the land had to be actively cared for, to make even village life possible, and outside the cultivated (in Persian, the ‘watered’) lands, there is on one side just miles and miles of nothing, with perhaps a shrub here and there, and on the other side bare rocky mountains with absolutely nothing. In between is a little strip of clay land at the foot of the mountain, where water can be brought from under the mountain slope by the qanats. In these circumstances, “care for the world” entails a complex social organisation, just as the urban community depends on a fragile surrounding ecology that has to be cared for: ‘islaah-ye `aalaam and tamaddun are transparently complementary in this setting.

~~ Sen McGlinn

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