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CRITIQUE OF THE CIVILIZATION OF THE WEST

(An essay based on passages from the Writings of Baha’u’llah and ‘Abdu’l-Baha by
Peter Terry, fall 2007)

In the first years of the 21st century, we are living witnesses to the triumph of
Western culture over all other cultures in all domains—in the arts, sciences, in
governance, in education, in all economic enterprises, in philosophies and literatures.
The Baha’i teachings praise the sciences, scientists, and call for the reconciliation of
religion with science. These teachings appear to be completely in harmony with
modernist Western culture, as they look forward to the progress of humanity towards
ever-greater efficiency and sophistication of technological development, the globalization
of all human institutions, and the emergence of a global civilization. The post-modern
critique of exclusivist ideologies, of imperialisms, of old categories likewise seems to
resonate with the Baha’i summons to inclusivism, to consultative dialogue, to the healing
of divisions, to collective resistance to oppressors, and to the welcoming of a new global
consciousness which revolutionizes the world in which we live.

But is that as far as Baha’u’llah’s vision goes? Is He a modernist or a post-


modernist? Does He contribute nothing unique to the revisioning of humankind? Did He
favor the dominance of the imperialist West? Would He approve of the modernist West?
And what would He think of the post-modernist West, that is, of the Western ideology of
pluralism and relativism which has become so popular in Western universities and among
Western intellectuals?

In His Writings, we can discern the answers to these questions, inasmuch as they
describe values which are directly applicable to the West in all three of its recent
incarnations. In some of His Tablets, He pointed out that “the civilization of the West”
having been “carried to excess” has “agitated and alarmed the peoples of the world”,
how “liberty, civilization and the like…if carried to excess, exercise a pernicious
influence upon men”, and that “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 word of God which the Supreme Pen hath recorded on the ninth leaf of the
Most Exalted Paradise is this: In 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. (Baha'u'llah, Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p. 68)

It is incumbent upon them who are in authority to exercise moderation in all


things. Whatsoever passeth beyond the limits of moderation will cease to exert a
beneficial influence. Consider 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.... (Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the
Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 216)

Whoso cleaveth to justice, can, under no circumstances, transgress the limits of


moderation. He discerneth the truth in all things, through the guidance of Him Who is the
All-Seeing. The civilization, so often vaunted by the learned exponents of arts and

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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. Meditate on this, O people, and be not of them that wander
distraught in the wilderness of error. The day is approaching when its flame will devour
the cities, when the Tongue of Grandeur will proclaim: "The Kingdom is God's, the
Almighty, the All-Praised!" (Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, pp.
342-343)

He also notes the influence of the “arts and wonders of the West” which have
resulted in “the people of the East” roving “distraught in the wilderness of material
causes”, echoing the passage cited above wherein He counsels the people “be not of
them that wander distraught in the wilderness of error” and warns that “the day is
approaching when its flame will devour the cities”:

When the eyes of the people of the East were captivated by the arts and wonders
of the West, they roved distraught in the wilderness of material causes, oblivious of the
One Who is the Causer of Causes, and the Sustainer thereof, while such men as were the
source and the wellspring of Wisdom never denied the moving Impulse behind these
causes, nor the Creator or the Origin thereof. Thy Lord knoweth, yet most of the people
know not. (Baha'u'llah, Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p. 144)

What is it about Western “civilization” that is capable of exercising such a


pernicious influence as to “prove as prolific a source of evil as it had been of goodness
when kept within the restraints of moderation”? We find our answers in “The Secret of
Divine Civilization”, which Shoghi Effendi called “'Abdu'l-Bahá's outstanding
contribution to the future reorganization of the world” (Shoghi Effendi, The World Order
of Baha'u'llah, p. 37).

We are accustomed, as readers of the Tablets and talks of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, to find in


Him a keen supporter of the sciences and arts, and in particular, a champion of the
scientific discoveries and technological developments of the West. We also find Him to
be in favor of the legal protection of civil rights, the equality of gender, the prohibition of
slavery, and democratic processes and institutions—all of which we associate with the
modern West. It may then come as a shock that ‘Abdu’l-Baha was not altogether
favorable to Western civilization. In “The Secret of Divine Civilization” we find
‘Abdu’l-Baha critiquing the West in very strong language. The entirety of His critique
will be cited, and then elaborated with an attempt to depict the West as He seems to have
perceived it:

At the beginning of this critique, we find ‘Abdu’l-Baha elucidating the meaning


of an Islamic tradition bearing upon the prerequisites of the truly learned, that is, the
necessary elements of a comprehensive education. One of these prerequisites is that the
learned must control his passions:

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For desire is a flame that has reduced to ashes uncounted lifetime harvests of the
learned, a devouring fire that even the vast sea of their accumulated knowledge could
never quench. How often has it happened that an individual who was graced with every
attribute of humanity and wore the jewel of true understanding, nevertheless followed
after his passions until his excellent qualities passed beyond moderation and he was
forced into excess. His pure intentions changed to evil ones, his attributes were no longer
put to uses worthy of them, and the power of his desires turned him aside from
righteousness and its rewards into ways that were dangerous and dark. A good character
is in the sight of God and His chosen ones and the possessors of insight, the most
excellent and praiseworthy of all things, but always on condition that its center of
emanation should be reason and knowledge and its base should be true moderation.
Were the implications of this subject to be developed as they deserve the work would
grow too long and our main theme would be lost to view.

This recalls the statements of Baha’u’llah cited above on the theme of


moderation. But does this principle of moderation apply to the same subject in “The
Secret of Divine Civilization” as it did in those Tablets? ‘Abdu’l-Baha continues:

All the peoples of Europe, notwithstanding their vaunted civilization, sink and
drown in this terrifying sea of passion and desire, and this is why all the phenomena of
their culture come to nothing. Let no one wonder at this statement or deplore it. The
primary purpose, the basic objective, in laying down powerful laws and setting up great
principles and institutions dealing with every aspect of civilization, is human happiness;
and human happiness consists only in drawing closer to the Threshold of Almighty God,
and in securing the peace and well-being of every individual member, high and low alike,
of the human race; and the supreme agencies for accomplishing these two objectives are
the excellent qualities with which humanity has been endowed.
A superficial culture, unsupported by a cultivated morality, is as "a confused
medley of dreams,"[Qur'án 12:44; 21:5] and external lustre without inner perfection is
"like a vapor in the desert which the thirsty dreameth to be water."[Qur'án 24:392] For
results which would win the good pleasure of God and secure the peace and well-being
of man, could never be fully achieved in a merely external civilization.
The peoples of Europe have not advanced to the higher planes of moral
civilization, as their opinions and behavior clearly demonstrate. Notice, for example, how
the supreme desire of European governments and peoples today is to conquer and crush
one another, and how, while harboring the greatest secret repulsion, they spend their
time exchanging expressions of neighborly affection, friendship and harmony.

To reiterate, He affirms that “all the peoples of Europe…sink and drown in this
terrifying sea of passion and desire, and this is why all the phenomena of their culture
come to nothing”, theirs is “a superficial culture”, “a merely external civilization”, and
“the peoples of Europe have not advanced to the higher planes of moral civilization”.
‘Abdu’l-Baha then elaborates this theme:

There is the well-known case of the ruler who is fostering peace and tranquillity
and at the same time devoting more energy than the warmongers to the accumulation of

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weapons and the building up of a larger army, on the grounds that peace and harmony
can only be brought about by force. Peace is the pretext, and night and day they are all
straining every nerve to pile up more weapons of war, and to pay for this their wretched
people must sacrifice most of whatever they are able to earn by their sweat and toil. How
many thousands have given up their work in useful industries and are laboring day and
night to produce new and deadlier weapons which would spill out the blood of the race
more copiously than before.
Each day they invent a new bomb or explosive and then the governments must
abandon their obsolete arms and begin producing the new, since the old weapons cannot
hold their own against the new. For example at this writing, in the year 1292 A.H.[1875]
they have invented a new rifle in Germany and a bronze cannon in Austria, which have
greater firepower than the Martini-Henry rifle and the Krupp cannon, are more rapid in
their effects and more efficient in annihilating humankind. The staggering cost of it all
must be borne by the hapless masses.
Be just: can this nominal civilization, unsupported by a genuine civilization of
character, bring about the peace and well-being of the people or win the good pleasure
of God? Does it not, rather, connote the destruction of man's estate and pull down the
pillars of happiness and peace?
At the time of the Franco-Prussian War, in the year 1870 of the Christian era, it
was reported that 600,000 men died, broken and beaten, on the field of battle. How many
a home was torn out by the roots; how many a city, flourishing the night before, was
toppled down by sunrise. How many a child was orphaned and abandoned, how many an
old father and mother had to see their sons, the young fruit of their lives, twisting and
dying in dust and blood. How many women were widowed, left without a helper or
protector.
And then there were the libraries and magnificent buildings of France that went
up in flames, and the military hospital, packed with sick and wounded men, that was set
on fire and burned to the ground. And there followed the terrible events of the Commune,
the savage acts, the ruin and horror when opposing factions fought and killed one
another in the streets of Paris. There were the hatreds and hostilities between Catholic
religious leaders and the German government. There was the civil strife and uproar, the
bloodshed and havoc brought on between the partisans of the Republic and the Carlists
in Spain.
Only too many such instances are available to demonstrate the fact that Europe is
morally uncivilized. Since the writer has no wish to cast aspersions on anyone He has
confined Himself to these few examples. It is clear that no perceptive and well-informed
mind can countenance such events. Is it right and proper that peoples among whom,
diametrically opposed to the most desirable human behavior, such horrors take place,
should dare lay claim to a real and adequate civilization? Especially when out of all this
no results can be hoped for except the winning of a transient victory; and since this
outcome never endures, it is, to the wise, not worth the effort.
Time and again down the centuries, the German state has subdued the French;
over and over, the kingdom of France has governed German land. Is it permissible that
in our day 600,000 helpless creatures should be offered up as a sacrifice to such nominal
and temporary uses and results? No, by the Lord God! Even a child can see the evil of it.
Yet the pursuit of passion and desire will wrap the eyes in a thousand veils that rise out of

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the heart to blind the sight and the insight as well. (‘Abdu'l-Baha, The Secret of Divine
Civilization, pp. 59-64)

What is the culprit? Over and over He says it is “the pursuit of passion and
desire”. Baha’u’llah has dealt with this theme in many of His Tablets, many of which are
cited below, in order to illustrate the importance He attached to the control of the
passions, and the devastating consequences to “a pursuit of passion and desire”:

O ye followers of this Wronged One! Ye are the shepherds of mankind; liberate ye


your flocks from the wolves of evil passions and desires, and adorn them with the
ornament of the fear of God. (Baha'u'llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 29)

We testify that thou hast cast behind thy back the Law of God, and laid hold on
the dictates of thy passions. (Baha'u'llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 82; TB, p.
207)

My sorrows are for those who have involved themselves in their corrupt passions,
and claim to be associated with the Faith of God, the Gracious, the All-Praised.
(Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 100)

Thou hast asked Me concerning the nature of the soul. Know, verily, that the soul
is a sign of God, a heavenly gem whose reality the most learned of men hath failed to
grasp, and whose mystery no mind, however acute, can ever hope to unravel. It is the first
among all created things to declare the excellence of its Creator, the first to recognize
His glory, to cleave to His truth, and to bow down in adoration before Him. If it be
faithful to God, it will reflect His light, and will, eventually, return unto Him. If it fail,
however, in its allegiance to its Creator, it will become a victim to self and passion, and
will, in the end, sink in their depths. (Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of
Baha'u'llah, LXXXII, pp. 158-159)

How great, how very great, the gulf that separateth Us from them who, in this
Day, are occupied with their evil passions, and have set their hopes on the things of the
earth and its fleeting glory! (Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, C,
p. 201)

O friends! Help ye the one true God, exalted be His glory, by your goodly deeds,
by such conduct and character as shall be acceptable in His sight. He that seeketh to be a
helper of God in this Day, let him close his eyes to whatever he may possess, and open
them to the things of God. Let him cease to occupy himself with that which profiteth him,
and concern himself with that which shall exalt the all-compelling name of the Almighty.
He should cleanse his heart from all evil passions and corrupt desires, for the fear of
God is the weapon that can render him victorious, the primary instrument whereby he
can achieve his purpose. (Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah,
CXXVI, p. 272)

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Say: O people of the Bayan! Did We not admonish you, in all Our Tablets and in
all Our hidden Scriptures, not to follow your evil passions and corrupt inclinations, but
to keep your eyes directed towards the Scene of transcendent glory, on the Day when the
Most Mighty Balance shall be set, the Day when the sweet melodies of the Spirit of God
shall be poured out from the right hand of the throne of your Lord, the omnipotent
Protector, the All-Powerful, the Holy of Holies? (Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the
Writings of Baha'u'llah, CXXXV, p. 292)

Verily I say: Incline your ears to My sweet voice, and sanctify yourselves from the
defilement of your evil passions and corrupt desires. (Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the
Writings of Baha'u'llah, CXXXVII, p. 298)

Help Thou Thy loved ones, O my Lord, them that have forsaken their all, that they
may obtain the things Thou dost possess, whom trials and tribulations have encompassed
for having renounced the world and set their affections on Thy realm of glory. Shield
them, I entreat Thee, O my Lord, from the assaults of their evil passions and desires, and
aid them to obtain the things that shall profit them in this present world and in the next.
(Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, CXXXVIII, pp. 300-301)

God grant that your desires and unmortified passions may not hinder you from
that which hath been ordained for you. (Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of
Baha'u'llah, CXLVII, p. 317)

O banished and faithful friend! Quench the thirst of heedlessness with the
sanctified waters of My grace, and chase the gloom of remoteness through the morning-
light of My Divine presence. Suffer not the habitation wherein dwelleth My undying love
for thee to be destroyed through the tyranny of covetous desires, and overcloud not the
beauty of the heavenly Youth with the dust of self and passion. (Baha'u'llah, Gleanings
from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, CLIII, p. 323)

Suffer not your idle fancies, your evil passions, your insincerity and blindness of
heart to dim the luster, or stain the sanctity, of so lofty a station. (Baha'u'llah, Gleanings
from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, CLIII, p. 327)

We, verily, have commanded you to refuse the dictates of your evil passions and
corrupt desires, and not to transgress the bounds which the Pen of the Most High hath
fixed, for these are the breath of life unto all created things. (Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from
the Writings of Baha'u'llah, CLV, p. 331)

Praised be Thou, O Lord my God! I implore Thee by Thine Ancient Beauty and
Most Great Name, Whom Thou hast sacrificed that all the dwellers of Thine earth and
heaven may be born anew, and Whom Thou hast cast into prison that mankind may, as a
token of Thy bounty and of Thy sovereign might, be released from the bondage of evil
passions and corrupt desires, to number me with those who have so deeply inhaled the
fragrance of Thy mercy, and hastened with such speed unto the living waters of Thy
grace, that no dart could hinder them from turning unto Thee, nor any spear from setting

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their faces towards the orient of Thy Revelation. (Baha'u'llah, Prayers and Meditations
by Baha'u'llah, XXXIV, p. 44)

Say, O people of the Bayan, speak not according to the dictates of passion and
selfish desire. (Baha'u'llah, Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p. 53)

Well is it with the king who keepeth a tight hold on the reins of his passion,
restraineth his anger and preferreth justice and fairness to injustice and tyranny.
(Baha'u'llah, Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p. 65)

We have said: 'My imprisonment doeth Me no harm, nor do the things that have
befallen Me at the hands of My enemies. That which harmeth Me is the conduct of my
loved ones who, though they bear My name, yet commit that which maketh My heart and
My pen to lament.' Such utterances as these have again and again been revealed, yet the
heedless have failed to profit thereby, since they are captive to their own evil passions
and corrupt desires. Beseech thou the One true God that He may enable everyone to
repent and return unto Him. So long as one's nature yieldeth unto evil passions, crime
and transgression will prevail. (Baha'u'llah, Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p. 70)

Beseech ye the One true God that He may, through the power of the hand of
loving-kindness and spiritual education, purge and purify certain souls from the
defilement of evil passions and corrupt desires, that they may arise and unloose their
tongues for the sake of God, that perchance the evidences of injustice may be blotted out
and the splendour of the light of justice may shed its radiance upon the whole world. The
people are ignorant, and they stand in need of those who will expound the truth.
(Baha'u'llah, Tablets of Baha'u'llah, pp. 170-171)

And shouldst thou recognize thy powerlessness, do thou rein in thy passions, and
return unto thy Lord, that perchance He may forgive thee thy sins which have caused the
leaves of the Divine Lote-Tree to be burnt up, and the Rock to cry out, and the eyes of
men of understanding to weep. (Baha'u'llah, Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p. 208)

But the foolish ones of the earth, being nurtured in evil passions and desires, have
remained heedless of the consummate wisdom of Him Who is, in truth, the All-Wise,
while their words and deeds are prompted by idle fancies and vain imaginings.
(Baha'u'llah, Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p. 220)

Fear ye God and follow not the promptings of your passions, rather follow Him
unto Whom have testified the Scriptures of God, the All-Knowing, the All-Wise.
(Baha'u'llah, Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p. 247)

We, verily, have commanded you to refuse the dictates of your evil passions and
corrupt desires, and not to transgress the bounds which the Pen of the Most High hath
fixed, for these are the breath of life unto all created things. (Baha'u'llah, The Kitab-i-
Aqdas, K2, pp. 19-20)

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Say: O concourse of divines! Hear ye not the shrill voice of My Most Exalted
Pen? See ye not this Sun that shineth in refulgent splendour above the All-Glorious
Horizon? For how long will ye worship the idols of your evil passions? Forsake your
vain imaginings, and turn yourselves unto God, your Everlasting Lord. (Baha'u'llah, The
Kitab-i-Aqdas, K41, p. 34)

We, verily, have made music as a ladder for your souls, a means whereby they
may be lifted up unto the realm on high; make it not, therefore, as wings to self and
passion. Truly, We are loath to see you numbered with the foolish. (Baha'u'llah, The
Kitab-i-Aqdas, K51, p. 38)

O people of Constantinople! Lo, from your midst We hear the baleful hooting of
the owl. Hath the drunkenness of passion laid hold upon you, or is it that ye are sunk in
heedlessness? (Baha'u'llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, K89, p. 52)

Say: O source of perversion! Abandon thy willful blindness, and speak forth the
truth amidst the people. I swear by God that I have wept for thee to see thee following thy
selfish passions and renouncing Him Who fashioned thee and brought thee into being.
(Baha'u'llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, K184, p. 86)

Such deeds and words have been solely instigated by leaders of religion, they that
worship no God but their own desire, who bear allegiance to naught but gold, who are
wrapt in the densest veils of learning, and who, enmeshed by its obscurities, are lost in
the wilds of error. Even as the Lord of being hath explicitly declared: "What thinkest
thou? He who hath made a God of his passions, and whom God causeth to err through a
knowledge, and whose ears and whose heart He hath sealed up, and over whose sight He
hath cast a veil -- who, after his rejection by God, shall guide such a one? Will ye not
then be warned?"[Qur'án 45:22] (Baha'u'llah, The Kitab-i-Iqan, p. 213)

The candle of thine heart is lighted by the hand of My power, quench it not with
the contrary winds of self and passion. The healer of all thine ills is remembrance of Me,
forget it not. Make My love thy treasure and cherish it even as thy very sight and life.
(Baha'u'llah, The Persian Hidden Words, #32)

With the hands of loving-kindness I have planted in the holy garden of paradise
the young tree of your love and friendship, and have watered it with the goodly showers
of My tender grace; now that the hour of its fruiting is come, strive that it may be
protected, and be not consumed with the flame of desire and passion. (Baha'u'llah, The
Persian Hidden Words, #34)

Even as the swiftness of lightning ye have passed by the Beloved One, and have
set your hearts on satanic fancies. Ye bow the knee before your vain imagining, and call
it truth. Ye turn your eyes towards the thorn, and name it a flower. Not a pure breath
have ye breathed, nor hath the breeze of detachment been wafted from the meadows of
your hearts. Ye have cast to the winds the loving counsels of the Beloved and have
effaced them utterly from the tablet of your hearts, and even as the beasts of the field, ye

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move and have your being within the pastures of desire and passion. (Baha'u'llah, The
Persian Hidden Words, #45)

My forbearance hath emboldened you and My long-suffering hath made you


negligent, in such wise that ye have spurred on the fiery charger of passion into perilous
ways that lead unto destruction. Have ye thought Me heedless or that I was unaware?
(Baha'u'llah, The Persian Hidden Words, #65)

Wherefore have not these soiled hands of thine touched first thine own garment,
and why with thine heart defiled with desire and passion dost thou seek to commune with
Me and to enter My sacred realm? Far, far are ye from that which ye desire.
(Baha'u'llah, The Persian Hidden Words, #68)

Thus it is that certain invalid souls have confined the lands of knowledge within
the wall of self and passion, and clouded them with ignorance and blindness, and have
been veiled from the light of the mystic sun and the mysteries of the Eternal Beloved; they
have strayed afar from the jewelled wisdom of the lucid Faith of the Lord of Messengers,
have been shut out of the sanctuary of the All-Beauteous One, and banished from the
Ka'bih of splendor. Such is the worth of the people of this age! (Baha'u'llah, The Seven
Valleys, pp. 19-20)

Beware lest ye act as did the King of Islam [The Sultan of Turkey] when We came
unto him at his bidding. His ministers pronounced judgement against Us with such
injustice that all creation lamented and the hearts of those who are nigh unto God were
consumed. The winds of self and passion move them as they will, and We found them all
bereft of constancy. They are, indeed, of those that are far astray. (Baha'u'llah, The
Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 94)

How very strange the imaginings of those who speak as prompted by their own
caprices, and who wander distractedly in the wilderness of self and passion! Erelong
shall they be called upon to account for their words, and on that day they shall find none
to befriend or help them. (Baha'u'llah, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 100)

O My God! Thou art the All-Bountiful, Whose grace is infinite. Withhold not Thy
servants from the most mighty Ocean, which Thou hast made the repository of 104 the
pearls of Thy knowledge and Thy wisdom, and turn them not away from Thy gate, which
Thou hast opened wide before all who are in Thy heaven and all who are on Thy earth. O
Lord! Leave them not to themselves, for they understand not and flee from that which is
better for them than all that Thou hast created upon Thine earth. Cast upon them, O My
God, the glances of the eye of Thy favour and bounty, and deliver them from self and
passion, that they may draw nigh unto Thy most exalted Horizon, taste the sweetness of
Thy remembrance, and delight in that bread which Thou hast sent down from the heaven
of Thy Will and the firmament of Thy grace. From everlasting Thy bounty hath embraced
the entire creation and Thy mercy hath surpassed all things. No God is there but Thee,
the Ever-Forgiving, the Most Compassionate. (Baha'u'llah, The Summons of the Lord of
Hosts, p. 103)

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It followeth, therefore, that rendering assistance unto God, in this day, doth not
and shall never consist in contending or disputing with any soul; nay rather, 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. (Baha'u'llah, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, pp. 109-110)

In this connection the text of several passages from the Hidden Book of Fatimih --
the blessings of God be upon her! -- which are relevant to the present theme will be cited
in the Persian tongue, that certain matters which have ere now been hidden may be
revealed before thy presence. The people addressed in the aforementioned Book, which is
today known as the Hidden Words, are those who, though outwardly known for learning
and piety, are inwardly the slaves of self and passion. (Baha'u'llah, The Summons of the
Lord of Hosts, pp. 115-116)

I sorrow not for Myself, however. By God! Mine head yearneth for the spear out
of love for its Lord. I never passed a tree, but Mine heart addressed it saying: "O would
that thou wert cut down in My name, and My body crucified upon thee, in the path of My
Lord!", for I see the people wandering distraught and unconscious in their drunken
stupor. They have raised on high their passions and set down their God. Methinks they
have taken His Cause for a mockery and regard it as a play and pastime, believing all the
while that they do well, and that they dwell securely in the citadel of safety. Howbeit the
matter is not as they fondly imagine: tomorrow shall they behold that which today they
are wont to deny! (Baha'u'llah, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, pp. 132-133)

I know not how long they shall spur on the charger of self and passion and rove in
the wilderness of error and negligence! Shall either the pomp of the mighty or the
wretchedness of the abased endure? Shall he who reposeth upon the loftiest seat of
honour, who hath attained the pinnacle of might and glory, abide forever? Nay, by My
Lord, the All-Merciful! All on earth shall pass away, and there remaineth alone the face
of My Lord, the All-Glorious, the Most-Bountiful. (Baha'u'llah, The Summons of the
Lord of Hosts, p. 134)

Know also that the soul is endowed with two wings: should it soar in the
atmosphere of love and contentment, then it will be related to the All-Merciful. And
should it fly in the atmosphere of self and desire, then it will pertain to the Evil One; may
God shield and protect us and protect you therefrom, O ye who perceive! Should the soul
become ignited with the fire of the love of God, it is called benevolent and pleasing unto
God, but should it be consumed with the fire of passion, it is known as the concupiscent
soul. Thus have We expounded this subject for thee that thou mayest obtain a clear
understanding. (Baha'u'llah, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 154)

O peoples of the earth! Incline your inner ears to the call of this Wronged One
and pause to reflect upon the story that We have recounted. Perchance ye may not be

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consumed by the fire of self and passion, nor allow the vain and worthless objects of this
nether world to withhold you from Him Who is the Eternal Truth. Glory and abasement,
riches and poverty, tranquillity and tribulation, all will pass away, and all the peoples of
the earth will erelong be laid to rest in their tombs. It behoveth therefore every man of
insight to fix his gaze upon the goal of eternity, that perchance by the grace of Him Who
is the Ancient King he may attain unto the immortal Kingdom and abide beneath the
shade of the Tree of His Revelation. (Baha'u'llah, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p.
169)

Had ye wished to deal with Us in accordance with your principles and standards,
it would have behoved you to respect and honour Us for complying with your commands
and following that which ye have pleased to ordain. Likewise, it would have beseemed
you to repay the debts which We incurred in 'Iraq in the execution of your wishes. Ye
should have given ear then unto Us, heard the account of Our woes, and judged with
equity, as ye would judge your own selves. Ye should not have wished for Us that which
ye have not wished for yourselves, but rather chosen to act with generosity. By God! Ye
dealt with Us neither in accordance with your own principles and standards, nor with
those of any man living, but in accordance with the promptings of your evil and wayward
passions, O ye concourse of the froward and the arrogant! (Baha'u'llah, The Summons
of the Lord of Hosts, p. 197)

Think not that thou hast abased this Youth or prevailed over Him. The least of
creatures ruleth over thee, and yet thou perceivest not. The lowliest and most abject of all
things holdeth sway over thee, and that is none other than self and passion, which have
ever been reprehensible. Were it not for God's consummate wisdom, thou wouldst have
been able to plainly behold thine own helplessness and that of all who dwell on earth.
Our abasement is indeed the glory of His Cause, could ye but understand. (Baha'u'llah,
The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 170)

The reader has noted, in reading these passages, that Baha’u’llah does not focus
His critique of “self and passion” on one people or one civilization. He addresses
Baha’is, Babis, Muslims, and all of humanity. It is the pursuit of “self and passion” that
is harmful, not its pursuit by one people or another. Nevertheless, ‘Abdu’l-Baha states
that all the peoples of the West “sink and drown in this terrifying sea of passion and
desire, and this is why all the phenomena of their culture come to nothing” and this
identifies a problem with Western civilization which cannot go unremedied. Where then
are the peoples of the West to turn in order to reform their civilization and thereby
advance “to the higher planes of moral civilization”? ‘Abdu’l-Baha addresses this topic
most succinctly in one of His talks:

In the Western world material civilization has attained the highest point of
development, but divine civilization was founded in the land of the East. The East must
acquire material civilization from the West, and the West must receive spiritual
civilization from the East. This will establish a mutual bond. When these two come
together, the world of humanity will present a glorious aspect, and extraordinary
progress will be achieved. This is clear and evident; no proof is needed. The degree of

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CRITIQUE OF THE CIVILIZATION OF THE WEST

material civilization in the Occident cannot be denied; nor can anyone fail to confirm the
spiritual civilization of the Orient, for all the divine foundations of human uplift have
appeared in the East. This, likewise, is clear and evident. Therefore, you must assist the
East in order that it may attain material progress. The East must, likewise, promulgate
the principles of spiritual civilization in the western world. By this commingling and
union the human race will attain the highest degree of prosperity and development.
Material civilization alone is not sufficient and will not prove productive. The physical
happiness of material conditions was allotted to the animal. Consider how the animal has
attained the fullest degree of physical felicity. A bird perches upon the loftiest branch and
builds there its nest with consummate beauty and skill. All the grains and seeds of the
meadows are its wealth and food; all the fresh water of mountain springs and rivers of
the plain are for its enjoyment. Truly, this is the acme of material happiness, to which
even a human creature cannot attain. This is the honor of the animal kingdom. But the
honor of the human kingdom is the attainment of spiritual happiness in the human world,
the acquisition of the knowledge and love of God. The honor allotted to man is the
acquisition of the supreme virtues of the human world. This is his real happiness and
felicity. But if material happiness and spiritual felicity be conjoined, it will be "delight
upon delight," as the Arabs say. We pray that God will unite the East and the West in
order that these two civilizations may be exchanged and mutually enjoyed. I am sure it
will come to pass, for this is the radiant century. This is an age for the outpouring of
divine mercy upon the exigency of this new century -- the unity of the East and the West.
It will surely be accomplished. (‘Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, pp.
165-166)

Now that we are well acquainted with the perspective of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, and its
connection with the teachings of Baha’u’llah, we will briefly survey the phenomena of
European culture during the 19th century to which ‘Abdu’l-Baha has specifically referred
in “The Secret of Divine Civilization”. Our sources for this review include Hendrick van
Loon’s “The Story of Mankind” (1921), and Jacques Barzun’s “From Dawn to
Decadence: 1500 to the present” (2000). One perspective is from the early 20th century,
while the other is from the end of that century.

What comes across very powerfully in both books is the huge influence of
Napoleon Bonaparte upon 19th century Europe. Although he was born in the 18th century
(August 15, 1769), and many of his ideas were stock Enlightenment themes, and while he
was dethroned and exiled by 1815, nevertheless, Napoleon was the “superman” of 19th
century Europe. 1 The visions of leadership cherished by Europeans well into the 20th
century were fed by the would be world conqueror from Corsica. Only two decades into
the 20th century, and recalling his 19th century grandfather, Hendrik van Loon wrote:

“Here I am sitting at a comfortable table loaded heavily with books, with one eye
on my typewriter and the other on Licorice the cat, who has a fondness for carbon paper,
and I am telling you that the Emperor Napoleon was a most contemptible person. But
should I happen to look out the window, down upon Seventh Avenue, and should the
endless procession of trucks and carts come to a sudden halt, and should I hear the sound
of the heavy drums and see the little man on his white horse in his old and much-worn

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green uniform, then I don’t know, but I am afraid that I would leave my books and the
kitten and my home and everything else to follow him wherever he cared to lead. My own
grandfather did this and Heaven knows he was not born to be a hero. Millions of other
people’s grandfathers did it. They received no reward, but they expected none. They
cheerfully gave legs and arms and lives to serve this foreigner, who took them into a
barrage of Russian or English or Spanish or Italian or Austrian cannon and stared
quietly into space while they were rolling in the agony of death.” 2

Europeans in the 19th century were preoccupied with bigger—with bigger nation-
states, with bigger empires, with greater fortunes, with larger buildings, with more
possessions, with larger orchestras and choirs 3 , with more spectacular works of art and
architecture. The leading philosophers of Europe were proponents of atheism, including
Marx, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer and Neitzsche, and in contrast to the atheism of the
18th century, which was full of joy and the affirmation of humanist values, this atheism
was a rejection of all meaning in life apart from what we can make for ourselves, through
our determination, our action. Kierkegaard wrote of 19th-century Europe, "Each age has
its own characteristic depravity. Ours is perhaps not pleasure or indulgence or sensuality,
but rather a dissolute pantheistic contempt for the individual man." 4 However, from
‘Abdu’l-Baha’s perspective, the driving force of European culture at that time was “the
pursuit of passion”, not perhaps “pleasure or indulgence or sensuality” but other passions
just as powerful and pernicious if not held in check.

What passions did Napoleon embody? The passion of national pride, which he
embodied not only for the French, whose dreams of world dominance were more fully
realized in this Corsican than in any previous monarch, including Louis XIV, le Roi
Soleil. Nationalism ran rampant in Europe during this century, a century of revolutions
and wars, most of which were waged in the name of national self-determination.

The passion of imperialism which expanded upon nationalism, as the power and
esteem of every nation was determined in part by its capacity to conquer and administer
and profit from colonies and subservient states. While Napoleon did not hold on to his
empire for long, he nevertheless embodied the desire of Europeans to conquer and to rule
over as many souls as possible.

The passion of materialism surged to new heights with the purge and rout of
entrenched religious institutions, the dissolution of the First Estate, accomplished in most
of Europe at the end of the 18th century and throughout the rest of Europe by the end of
the 19th century, was likewise embodied in Napoleon, who espoused a religion of
secularism, honoring no religious hierarchy nor any existing confession. While he did
not altogether reject belief in God, he embodied the independence of Europeans from
their religious heritage, and their devotion to other gods, other ideologies, for nature
abhors a vacuum. The passion of materialism was evident in the dedication of 19th
century scientists to find a material explanation for everything in existence. 5 Particularly
influential was the idea of progress in the realm of all of nature, called evolution and
driven by a struggle for existence. Once more, while this idea had its roots in the 18th
century, it flourished and was articulated in full in the 19th century by Lamarck and

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Darwin. 6 The passion of materialism inspired confidence in industry, in progress, in


utilitarianism. 7 The passion of materialism also drove the middle class to demand and to
acquire a multitude of possessions, beyond anything they required or even coveted in
earlier centuries. 8 It drove the working class to demand and to seek to acquire the same
possessions of the middle class who had become their models and whom they sought to
imitate and simultaneously wished to destroy. It drove the peasant class to take up the
values of the working class. Whereas the feudal system had a place for every class and
hence for every individual, at the start of the 19th century the feudal system was in ruins
in France and under attack in all other European realms. What took the place of the
feudal system? The dictatorship of the proletariat envisioned by Marx? The classless
society envisioned by many socialist reformers? No…class warfare.

The passion of racialism was first articulated by the Comte de Gobineau (1816-
1882), and carried into practice by the European imperialists, who did not hesitate to treat
all peoples of the non-Caucasian races as inferiors and requiring their administration and
education in order to be of any true value to the master race. 9 While the term “White
Man’s Burden” did not see light until Rudyard Kipling’s poem of that name was
published in 1899, it conveyed nonetheless the attitude which prevailed among the
Europeans during this century, the view that the Caucasian race was superior to all other
races and therefore had an obligation to rule them. Whereas the old imperialism of
earlier centuries was carried out in order to generate more income for the ruling classes,
the new imperialism of the 19th century was for the purpose of civilizing the inferior
races, and drawing them into Occidental civilization, as subservient societies. Once more
Napoleon embodied this racialism with his attempt to conquer all peoples, his conviction
that the Gallic race was superior to all others.

In the 20th century, Shoghi Effendi wrote:

“The chief idols in the desecrated temple of mankind are none other than the
triple gods of Nationalism, Racialism and Communism, at whose altars governments and
peoples, whether democratic or totalitarian, at peace or at war, of the East or of the
West, Christian or Islamic, are, in various forms and in different degrees, now
worshiping.” (Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is Come, p. 113)

If the “chief idols in the desecrated temple of mankind” were “Nationalism,


Racialism and Communism”, all of which had their origins in 19th century Europe, there
were other passions at work in Europe during those years. A passion for order and
stability drove the emergence of the Holy Alliance, which held in check the competing
European nations for almost forty years, until the Crimean War between Russia, England,
France, Italy and the Ottoman Empire, in 1854. But try as they may, the forces that
sought to maintain order and stability by repressing the liberties briefly assumed at the
close of the 18th century were unable to sustain their mastery over the masses. The
masses desired nationalism, liberalism, emancipation, and they would have it, whether
the entrenched hierarchies liked it or not. Were the masses motivated by Reason, that
great organizer of principles so ardently endorsed by the thinking men of the 18th
century?

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CRITIQUE OF THE CIVILIZATION OF THE WEST

No, they were motivated by passion. That passion has often been called
Romanticism. The Romantic worldview was one that combined mind and heart,
imagination, and a reaction to and dissatisfaction with cold reason. 10 According to this
worldview, human beings are motivated by passion, every thought is charged with
emotion, feelings come first. 11 The Romanticists were carried away by the poetry and
life of Lord Byron and by the music and life of Franz Liszt, but above all, by the
conquests and life of Napoleon. 12 Romanticism was a philosophy, a movement in the
arts, a worldview superior to that of the Enlightenment, superior that is for its devotees.
For them, the hero is a genius, the hero is an artist, the hero is a man of passion. 13 For
them, man is great and weak, and even the greatest man of all is weak.

In 1875, ‘Abdu’l-Baha wrote “All the peoples of Europe, notwithstanding their


vaunted civilization, sink and drown in this terrifying sea of passion and desire…”
(‘Abdu'l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 60). What better description of 19th
century Europe is conceivable?
1
Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence, pp. 483, 485
2
Hendrik van Loon, The Story of Mankind, p. 352
3
Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence, pp. 468, 545
4
Ibid., pp. 471, 556
5
Ibid., p. 570
6
Ibid., p. 455
7
Ibid., p. 526
8
Ibid., pp. 551, 554
9
Ibid., pp. 577-579
10
Ibid., p. 468
11
Ibid., pp. 468-470, 473
12
Ibid., pp. 471, 483, 485
13
Ibid., 483

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