Abdu’l-Baha and the African tribe
Posted by Sen on September 15, 2009
Abdu’l-Baha and his critics
You can ‘prove’ just about anything, by pulling words out of context. A few years ago there was an example of this tactic on a web site opposing the Bahai teachings, called ‘Answering Bahaullah.’ One page there purported to show examples of racism in Bahai scripture. That site is no longer functioning, although the web archive has a copy, but the material from that page is being recycled by various bloggers and has been reproduced in the ‘Bahai Combat Kit’ at page 73 (image later in this entry).
So let’s look at these “proofs” of racism in the Bahai scriptures. But first let’s look at Abdu’l-Baha. When he was in the United States, Abdu’l-Baha met with African Americans, invited them to the homes of wealthy white society hosts, and spoke tirelessly on the subject of racial equality as he toured the United States. He suggested to the first educated and articulate African-American Bahai, the lawyer Louis Gregory, that he marry Louise Matthews, a white English Bahai. While staying in Dublin, New Hampshire, he arranged a Sunday afternoon meeting especially for the servants of the wealthy families in the area, and spoke to them of this forthcoming marriage and the need for “amity between blacks and whites.” Mahmud Zarqani reports this meeting (p 189) and says that, in the context of America at the time “splitting the moon in half would be an easier accomplishment.” In Washington he spoke on the same themes at Howard University, which had begun as a Black University, and when Louis Gregory was turned away from a society dinner in the city, Abdu’l-Baha had him called back, rearranged the chairs, and seated Gregory on his right. Abdu’l-Baha personally addressed the fourth annual conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People in 1912 (a text is here; it may not be reliable). When he was back in Palestine, he continued to urge the American Bahais to demonstrate their own freedom from racial prejudice, to hold meetings where whites and blacks would mix and socialise, and to be active in fighting prejudice and discrimination in society. He wrote, for example:
Strive with heart and soul in order to bring about union and harmony among the white and the black and prove thereby the unity of the Bahai world … Variations of colour, of land and of race are of no importance in the Bahai Faith…
(Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, 112)
He sent messages of encouragement to African-American Bahais:
As to . . . and . . ., verily the faces of these are as the pupil of the eye; although the pupil is created black, yet is it the source of light. I hope God will make these black ones the glory of the white ones and as the depositing of the lights of love of God.
(Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha, 292)
When Mrs Parsons went to Palestine on pilgrimage, Abdu’l-Baha encouraged her to initiate the first Convention for Race Amity, which was held in 1921 in the First Congregational Church in Washington. A photograph of one Amity Convention below illustrates the practical effects of Abdu’l-Baha’s teachings in eliminating the barriers of prejeudice. Local activities went under the name of ‘Rainbow Circles’ and in some Bahai communities were weekly events, with mixed audiences.
Such knowledge about Abdu’l-Baha’s character and the things he put his energy into, and what he achieved by it, is also part of the con-text we need if we are to understand the text correctly.
‘As wandering savages’
In the Bahai Combat Kit, all but one of the examples of ‘racism in Bahai scriptures’ are from The Promulgation of Universal Peace: that is, reports of what an interpreter said Abdu’l-Baha had said, in many cases altered later by the editor of this book. I will come to those later. The exception is the last one on the page, where Abdu’l-Baha is quoted as writing:
The inhabitants of a country like Africa are all as wandering savages and wild animals; they lack intelligence and knowledge; all are uncivilized; On the contrary, consider the civilized countries, the inhabitants of which are living in the highest state of culture and ethics, solidarity and inter-dependence; possessing, with few exceptions, acute power of comprehensions and sound mind.
Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha, 576
This quote is from the beginning of a letter from Abdu’l-Baha about the importance of education, for boys and girls, and the limits of education. You can read the whole letter, in the old translation in Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha Abbas volume 3 (1916) here.
The Persian text is available in a collection of Abdu’l-Baha’s letters called Min mukaatiib Haziratu’l-‘Abdu’l-Baha vol. 1, section 110. (Also in the compilations Payam-e Malakut and in Amr wa Khalq.) I have done a new translation of the beginning of the letter. My translation doesn’t differ much from the old one, but what a difference it makes to read the context of the words that are twisted by selective misquotation in the Bahai Combat Kit!
O ye beloved of God and maid-servants of the Merciful!
Many intellectuals believe that the diversity of intellect and insight is due to differences in education and socialisation. That is, that minds are initially at the same level, but education and socialisation cause intellectual capacities to differ and lead to the distinction between people’s understandings, and that these differences are not innate, but due to education and socialisation: that no soul has any inherent distinction. Therefore, all members of the human race have the capacity to achieve the most exalted station.
To prove this they say:
“The inhabitants of one region, such as Africa, are all like voracious beasts or wild animals; without understanding or knowledge, all uncivilized; not one civilized and wise man exists among them. This they contrast to civilized countries: all the inhabitants living in the highest state of culture and ethics, in cooperation and solidarity, and with few exceptions, with acute understanding and sound reasoning. Therefore, it is made clear and established that the superiority and inferiority of minds and comprehensions arises from education and teaching, or the lack of them. A bent branch is straightened by training and the wild fruit of the jungle is made the fruit of the orchard. An ignorant man becomes knowledgeable through teaching, and through the bounty of a wise educator, the uncultivated region becomes a civilized kingdom. The sick may be healed by the physician’s art, and the poor man, by learning the arts of commerce, can achieve independence. The follower, by attaining the virtues of the leader, becomes great, and an abject man, through the education of a teacher, rises from the depths of abasement to the heights of glory.”
This is their argument.
The Prophets concur with the idea that education has the greatest effect on a person. They affirm, however, that differences in intelligence and perceptiveness are innate. This is obvious, and cannot be denied. We see that certain children of the same age, country and race, or even from the same household and being taught by the same person, nevertheless differ in intelligence and perceptiveness. One makes rapid progress, another is gradually illumined by instruction, while another remains at the lowest level….
The words that were quoted out of context as proof of ‘racism in the Bahai writings,’ are Abdu’l-Baha’s outline of the position on education taken by some intellectuals – a position he then refutes. The bare bones of the argument are:
* Many intellectuals believe that the diversity of intellect is entirely due to differences in education. That is, that all minds are initially at the same level. Therefore, all children have the capacity to achieve the most exalted station.
* They ‘prove’ this by comparing Africans to civilized people (Europeans): since they say the whole population in Africa are like animals, and almost all people in Europe are cultured and ethical, they argue that the difference must be due to the education available, not to natural variation. [If it was due to natural variation, there would be intelligent people in Africa, and savages in Europe, and these (European) intellectuals think there are none.]
* However the Prophets [and Abdu’l-Baha] agree only partially. Education is very important, but differences in intelligence and perceptiveness are innate. Children of the same household taught by the same person, nevertheless differ in intelligence and receptiveness.
* If there was no educator, all souls would remain uncultivated, which is why education for all is obligatory in the Bahai dispensation.
Abdu’l-Baha’s point, in this first part of a long tablet about education, is that the idea that everyone is born equal in all capacities is just not true. Perhaps he begins his letter with this point in response to some idea or question that had been addressed to him. However the concept is generally important because the idea denies inborn individuality, and also because some modernist philosophers had suggested that the founders of religions were just super-refined or highly-educated humans, and all could potentially reach the ‘highest station’ – that of the prophets. So with sufficient education, religion would become redundant. The agenda behind such claims was that religious teachers had been the leaders of thought and society, when humanity was at a superstitious/religious stage of development, but now in the modern and scientific age, the philosophers and scientists (the very ones presenting this argument!) would take their place.
Abdu’l-Baha argues however, that while education is important, it does not give the most educated the “highest station.”
‘Even the Prophetic Degree’
The argument that the Prophets are not super-refined philosophers, but rather something unique is clearer in an almost identical talk which Abdu’l-Baha gave on 3 May 1912 in Chicago. There are no Persian notes for this talk, so it is a pilgrim’s note, that is, a report of the interpreter’s words, which is not entirely reliable. The version of this talk published in The Promulgation of Universal Peace is available here but I am going to use an earlier version of the same notes, published in Star of the West, Volume 3, no. 4, pages 18-19. The editor of The Promulgation of Universal Peace allows himself a very free hand, adding things of his own invention and changing other things (see ‘a consummate union’ for an example), so it is best to avoid the book where possible. I’ve put the full text of the version in Star of the West on another page. It says, in part:
THE difference, in humankind, from the highest to the lowest the philosophers declare, is due to education or lack of education. The proofs advanced with regard to this are these: The inhabitants of Africa are human, the inhabitants of America are also human, the inhabitants of Europe are human. What is the cause of the difference which exists between the inhabitants of Africa and those of America or Europe? The inhabitants of America are civilized, generally speaking; the inhabitants of Africa, generally speaking, are pronounced to be savage, with few exceptions. What causes this difference? There is no doubt that the inhabitants of America are civilized because of education, whereas the people of Africa have been deprived of education. … Therefore the differences apparent in humankind – in the world of humanity, namely that some occupy lofty degrees, others occupy the abyss of despair, is mainly due to education or its absence. Every individual member of the human race can attain to the loftiest degrees. He can even reach the prophetic degree. This is the statement of the philosophers.
The prophets of God also state that education is most effective; that it does give man sublimity; it does confer on man civilization; it does improve the morals of society; but they further state that in creation there is some difference. For example, take ten given children of the same age, of the same progeny, in the same school, … we find out ere long that two of these appear exceedingly intelligent; some are in the medium, and some at the bottom of the school. …. hence it becomes evident that in existence, in the very existence of man, mankind is not equal. In capacity they differ; in their intellectual capability they differ. They are different, but every member of the human race is capable of becoming educated. They must be educated. The prophets of God are the first educators, they educate the human race generally, they give them universal education, they cause them to leave the lowest degrees or grades of savagery and attain to the highest pinnacle of civilization. …
Once again, we can see that the reference to Africans comes in Abdu’l-Baha’s outline of the thinking of certain philosophers, and that the purpose of mentioning their ideas is to refute them, on the grounds that differences between individuals are in fact innate (not innate to races, but to all individuals because they are individual), and also to argue against the philosophers’ supposition that sufficient education would elevate a man to the level of the Prophets. For Abdu’l-Baha, however diligent we are, as students in the ‘education’ of religion (i.e., as disciples), we never become the master. Education of all kinds is good, but we always have to turn to the Prophet. That is, humanity never grows out of religion, however modern and civilized it may become. And we should get our religious ‘education’ from the prophets themselves, not from what other people have made of religion.
‘The savage tribes of central Africa’
Another of the ‘racist’ texts cited in the Bahai Combat Kit is this, printed in The Promulgation of Universal Peace page 308:
If man himself is left in his natural state, he will become lower than the animal and continue to grow more ignorant and imperfect. The savage tribes of central Africa are evidences of this. Left in their natural condition, they have sunk to the lowest depths and degrees of barbarism, dimly groping in a world of mental and moral obscurity.
‘Combatting Bahaullah’ misquoted this as ‘The savage African tribes of central Africa’ and the same misprint has been taken over by the Bahai Combat Kit and others. The text comes from a talk about education that Abdu’l-Baha gave in Montreal on 2 September 1912. Persian notes of the talk were published in the Persian section of Star of the West, volume 5 page 96 (see image) and in Khatabat-e Abdu’l-Baha vol 2 page 233 (download here). What Abdu’l-Baha says, according to the Persian notes, is :
If we look closely at the world of nature and penetrate to the depth of its secrets, it will be observed that the world of nature is defective and dark. For example, if we abandon a piece of land and return it to the state of nature it becomes thorny …
… In the same way, if man is abandoned to nature, he becomes worse than an animal. He remains unenlightened and ignorant, like the inhabitants of Central Africa. Therefore, if we are continually seeking this dark world we become like the Turanians [legendary enemies of the Iranians in the Shah-Nameh epic]. [If] we have education, uncultured people become cultured, those with bad characters gain good characters.
This is representative of a number of Abdu’l-Baha’s talks, recorded in Persian and in English, in which he discusses the imperfection of humans in the ‘state of nature.’ He is arguing against the contemporary cultural fad of primitivism (the ballet L’après-midi d’un faune was first performed in 1912) and, specifically in relation to educational theory, the idea of Rousseau that nature is inherently perfect, and that ‘uncorrupted morals’ prevail in humans in ‘the state of nature.’ The phrase “the noble savage” is often attributed to Rousseau, but ‘savage’ is a mis-translation. The French word “sauvage” means ‘wild,’ as in ‘a wild flower,’ it should be translated with ‘natural’ or ‘uncultivated’ rather than ‘savage.’ Rousseau argued for the nobility of the natural man.
The talk I cited above is interesting, because Abdu’l-Baha gives two examples of what people are like if left in the state of nature: one is a fictional ancient people, the Turanians, and the other is the people of ‘Central Africa.’ Abdu’l-Baha is asking us to imagine what people are like if left entirely in the state of nature. Today, we might say, “imagine an isolated group who have never been contacted, in New Guinea or deep in the Amazon.” Such thought experiments are not derogatory references to an actual people, because obviously once we know about an actual people, they also know about us, and we can no longer imagine them as a people untouched by our ways. So the ‘natural man’ is always imagined living in unexplored territory. In the lead-up to World War I, Central Africa was used in this figure of speech, because Central Africa had captured European imagination through the exploits of the 19th century explorers and the machinations of the colonial powers’ ‘scramble for Africa.’ The map of the continent had largely been coloured in, but what lay within the claimed territories was still a matter of speculation. In the world of sober fact, New Guinea and the Amazon and Orinoco basins were even more uncharted in those days, but in the world of imagination, ‘Africa’ was the name to conjure with. Moreover, because of the impact of the slave trade and of European and Arab incursions, societies in Central Africa may well have been at a deep point, even compared to their own past.
If we are being strictly consistent with Bahai teachings, both the ancient Turanians and a hypothetic people in (nineteenth century) Central Africa are inappropriate examples of ‘humanity in a state of nature,’ since the Bahai teachings say that God has never left any people without grace and the guidance of prophets and saints; moreover, the word I have translated as ‘training’ or ‘education’ means something much broader than formal education: it includes the upbringing that parents give to their children. Can we even imagine a people without that? The pure ‘natural man’ without such education is obviously a fiction, a figure of speech.
Emerson said that consistency is the foible of weak minds: a little doctrinal inconsistency doesn’t seem to have inhibited Abdu’l-Baha in expressing his views on the theories about human beings in ‘the state of nature.’ In one case, during a talk given at the London home of Lady Blomfield, on Christmas eve 1912, he first removes the adults from the scene, and then reintroduces the ‘Central Africans:’
“…if children were left in the desert, never receiving education, it is certain that they would remain ignorant, that they would know nothing of civilization, they would have neither skilled crafts, nor trade, nor agriculture. They would be like the inhabitants of Central Africa, who are wild in the extreme. The difference between Europe and Africa is certainly due to education, for people in Europe receive an education, while people in Africa do not. This is clear proof that humans are in need of education. Education is of two types: spiritual and worldly …” (My translation: see the Persian notes here)
In these arguments Abdu’l-Baha is adopting a current discourse in which Central Africa was the supposed home of ‘natural man,’ and uses it, but he is not adopting racial stereotypes about the negro race. We can see this from his own behaviour, and also from a letter with a similar argument which he wrote to one of the friends in China. In it he says:
…the world of existence is in need of an educator, and educators are of two kinds, the one who trains the natural world, and the one who enlightens the world of true reality. If the earth is left in the state of nature, it becomes a jungle or a thorn thicket. But with the intervention of a benevolent gardener, the jungle becomes a garden, the thorns give way to flowers. So it is evident that training is needed in the world of nature. Likewise, observe that if the human race were to be deprived of training and education, it would become a corrupted body, just as the wild tribes are not differentiated from the animals. For example, see how great the difference is, between the blacks in Africa and the blacks in America. One is a beast God created in human form, while the other is civilized, perceptive and cultured. In this journey [to America] I delivered complex addresses at the meetings and churches and schools of the blacks in Washington. They mastered every point, just like the philosophers of Europe. And what difference is there, between blacks in these two places, the one in a most benighted state and the other at the summit of civilization, except for education? It is certain that teaching and education is the cause of the high attainment of the one, and lack of education has led to the wretchedness of the other.
Some Answered Questions
What has been said above about the talks and tablets in which Abdu’l-Baha argues that a natural man would be far from noble also fits the first mention of Africans in Some Answered Questions. The chapters in Some Answered Questions are talks, in response to questions, but they were recorded in Persian and Abdu’l-Baha checked and corrected the transcripts, so they are as reliable as the works Abdu’l-Baha wrote with his own hand. However the early (1908) translation into French by Hippolyte Dreyfus, and the re-translation into English by Barney and Dreyfus in the same year, leaves a lot to be desired. I have therefore made my own translation.
That first mention comes in the third chapter (on page 7 of the Dreyfus-Barney translation), entitled ‘demonstrating the need for an educator:’
“… man, if he is left without education, becomes bestial, and, if left under the rule of nature, becomes lower than an animal, whereas if he is educated he becomes an angel. For most animals do not devour their own kind, but people in the Sudan, in the central regions of Africa, may kill and eat their own kind…. If a man lived in a wilderness where he sees none of his own kind, there is no doubt that he will become a mere brute; it is then clear that an educator is needed.” (Persian text in Mufawazat, pages 5-6)
The term ‘Sudan’ here could refer to the French Soudan, present-day Mali, or more probably to the whole region known in Arabic as the Sudan, the ‘land of the blacks’ extending from east to west across tropical Africa.
The next mention in Some Answered Questions is in chapter 7 which describes the state of the Arabs before the coming of Muhammad. In the Dreyfus and Barney translation it reads:
These Arab tribes were in the lowest depths of savagery and barbarism, and in comparison with them the savages of Africa and wild Indians of America were as advanced as a Plato. The savages of America do not bury their children alive as these Arabs did their daughters, …
However there is no mention of Africa in the original text. The Persian text (available here, see page 14) says:
These Arab tribes and clans were extremely pugnacious and deprived of civilization, such that, in comparison with them, the barbarians or wild men of America were the Plato of the age, for the barbarians of America do not bury their children alive ….
The passage raises two translation issues. Dreyfus and Barney have translated the word biraabir (meaning ‘barbarians’) in the first case as ‘savages of Africa,’ and it is true that one meaning of the word is ‘Africans’ especially those of North Africa. Dreyfus, being French, may perhaps have come across the word only in this sense. But the second use in this sentence allows only the meaning ‘barbarians of America,’ so there is no reason to suppose that the first use was talking about African barbarians. ‘America’ here probably does not refer to North America, where one could scarcely speak of ‘wild men’ at the time Abdu’l-Baha was speaking, but rather to the Amazon region. Today, we know that the tribes there were not people untouched by civilization, but rather the remnants of a substantial civilization that was destroyed by introduced diseases.
A second point to note in the Dreyfus and Barney translation are the two related words tawahhush and mutawahhish-ayn, which I have rendered ‘deprived of civilization’ and ‘wild men.’ Tawahhush has the connotation of a scene of desolation, it is a place of ‘wild’ life without amenities and comforts. Dreyfus and Barney translate it as ‘savagery,’ probably because the French word sauvage has just the right connotation of the natural and unimproved. Mutawahhish-ayn are the inhabitants of a place that is tawahhush, so I have translated it ‘wild men’ whereas Dreyfus and Barney use ‘savages.’
The next instance in Some Answered Questions is at page 119, in the Dreyfus and Barney translation.
A man who has not had a spiritual education is a brute. Like the savages of Africa, whose actions, habits and morals are purely sensual, they act according to the demands of nature to such a degree that they rend and eat one another.
In the Persian text (Mufawazat) this is at the bottom of page 90. There is no word for ‘savages’ in the Persian text: it seems that ‘Africa’ and ‘savage’ (or sauvage) were such a familiar pair for the translators, that they felt ‘savage’ had to be inserted where Africa was mentioned. However the meaning is not much changed by the addition, since the context says that these are indeed savages. What is lost where ‘savages’ has been inserted is more important: the text refers ambiguously either to ‘the inhabitants of Africa’ or to ‘a certain African people.’ ‘Inhabitants’ would be much the more usual meaning, but Abdu’l-Baha had lived himself in Alexandria, so it is hardly plausible that he meant that all inhabitants of Africa were cannibals! The reference must again be to a notional or rumoured people living somewhere in Africa, perhaps to some recent exploration report about such a people.
Lutherans in Sudan
The last mention of Africans by Abdu’l-Baha I have come across is the first in time, in his book The Secret of Divine Civilization. It appears on page 42 of Marzieh Gail’s translation:
The leaders of this religion [Lutherans or Protestants] are still making every effort to promote it, and today on the East Coast of Africa, ostensibly to emancipate the Sudanese and various Negro peoples, they have established schools and colleges and are training and civilizing completely savage African tribes, while their true and primary purpose is to convert some of the Muslim Negro tribes to Protestantism. Every community is toiling for the advancement of its people, and we [i.e., Muslims] sleep on!
In the Persian text, the words in question are at the bottom of page 50. The only comment to make on Gail’s translation is the reference to ‘savage’ African tribes. The original is mutawahhisheh, another variant on the words discussed above. In my (still unpublished) translation of this work, I render it “they … are educating, training and civilizing completely benighted African tribes.” Mutawahhisheh does not have the connotation of violence and savagery, but rather of people who live in desolate places. It is well translated by the French word sauvage but not by the English word ‘savage.’
A number of the early Bahais were exiled to the Sudan in the years 1868-1877: Abdu’l-Baha wrote this book in 1875, so his picture may reflect reports received by the Bahais in exile.
The common theme in this is the importance of context for understanding. We need to read the wider text from which a particular quote is extracted, we need to know about the person who is speaking (what kind of person was this? What priorities were imposed by his or her situation?), and also the social and intellectual context of the time.
Looking back over all this material, some points stand out. First, how much energy Abdu’l-Baha devoted to refuting Rousseau’s idea of the nobility of man ‘in a state of nature’ as related to education. There are more talks and tablets on this subject than I have discussed above, but they tend to follow the same pattern. Perhaps this was for him a section in the book he planned, but never wrote: a sequel to The Secret of Divine Civilization on the topic of education. I was at first surprised by his engagement with this contemporary intellectual current: would his audiences really have accepted, or cared about, Rousseau’s ideas? Perhaps the explanation lies in Abdu’l-Baha’s awareness of his own responsibilities, as leader and standard-setter for a whole community. He would not have served the future generations of Bahais if he had been less than emphatic about the value of education, and thus the degeneracy of ‘man in the state of nature.’
Second, it is evident that Abdu’l-Baha has a very high valuation of the things available in urban civilization (education first, and also law, accumulated knowledge, medical expertise, community religious observances… ). So people who live in “desolate places” – in uncitified places — are by definition deprived. This applied in Abdu’l-Baha’s time to Africans south of the Sahara, and in Secret of Divine Civilization he says that the ancient Europeans — presumably in the time of classical Greece — “were the most savage of the world’s peoples, the most ignorant and brutish. They were even stigmatized as barbarians — that is, utterly rude and uncivilized.”
This high valuation of city-civilization goes with a resolute belief that every people can be improved by the arts of civilization, just as women can be advanced by giving them education. All kinds of people have human capacities, but they do not have equal access to the means of developing them, as they ought to. You could say that this high valuation of the facilities offered by urban civilization is typically Islamic, which it is. It is echoed in the Aqdas laws that differentiate between city dwellers and others. But it is also the way city-civilizations have usually thought, and with good reason. Until the mobility and communication of the late 20th century, people growing up outside of cities, anywhere in the world, really were severely limited in how far they could develop their innate capacities.
In Abdu’l-Baha’s talks and tablets, a people living in a state of nature are often located in Africa. In Abdu’l-Baha’s time, Africa south of the Sahara was the natural example of people-without-cities: the city civilization of Zimbabwe was unknown, and the cities that did exist were remnants of earlier glories, or colonial creations.
This high valuation of urban civilisation does not mean that Abdu’l-Baha thought people in urbanised societies were morally superior. He is equally frank about the injustice and decline of eastern civilizations, notably Persia, and in The Secret of Divine Civilization he rails against the European society of his time, calling it “a superficial culture, unsupported by a cultivated morality” and a “nominal civilization, unsupported by a genuine civilization of character.” He pointed to the militarism and expansionism of the European powers as evidence, and to their habitual hypocrisy and oppression of their poor. (pages 60-61). In a letter that appears to refer to the build-up to World War 1, he writes:
… the most advanced and civilized countries of the world have been turned into arsenals of explosives, … the governments of the world are vying with each other as to who will first step into the field of carnage and bloodshed, thus subjecting mankind to the utmost degree of affliction.” (Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, 284)
But wherever he highlights the dark side of humanity, whether in natural man or citified man, Abdu’l-Baha does so to urge us to acquire the light. His response to this ‘superficial culture’ is not to turn away from technical advance and urban civilization, but to combine them with a moral education and religious guidance:
“… this civilization and material progress should be combined with the Most Great Guidance so that this nether world may become the scene of the appearance of the bestowals of the Kingdom, and physical achievements may be conjoined with the effulgences of the Merciful.” (Ibid)
Abdu’l-Baha is aware that moral civilization is something different to acquired culture, and that entire cultures can degenerate into immorality. He frequently uses derivates of the Arabic root JHL, such as Jahilliya (meaning ignorant, brutish, culturally degenerate) to refer to contemporary Europeans, contemporary Arabs and others, and to refer to the state of the Arabs before the time of Muhammad – which is the usual reference of the word. This does not mean that these people had been deprived of true religion, because according to Muslim belief the Kaaba had been built by Abraham who founded the religion of the Arabs. Rather it means that religions can be corrupted or ignored, and cultures can degenerate. Africans are not exempt, but neither are Arabs or Europeans. Mechanised European wars, Persian religious obscurantism, and cannibalism are all jahil, brutish and degenerate, and this is a moral judgement independent of race or degree of citification.
Mahmud’s Diary, by Mirza Mahmud Zarqani, gives an account of Abdu’l-Baha’s trip to North America.
Richard Thomas, ‘A long and thorny path: race relations in the American Bahai Community’ in Anthony Lee (ed.) Circle of Unity
236 Days in America: Abdu’l-Baha’s Journey in America, by Allan Ward, Wilmette: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1979. (Appears to be out of print)
The Power of Unity: Beyond Prejudice and Racism, selections from the Writing of Bahá’u’lláh, the Báb, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice, compiled by Bonnie Taylor of the National Race Unity Committee (Compilation published by the National Spiritual Assembly of the USA, appears to be out of print.)
A vision of Race Unity (web site)
Abdu’l-Baha Answers, a web site that collects stories and pen portraits of Abdu’l-Baha, his answers to questions, photographs and other materials.