"The Education of Nations": A review of Abdu'l-Bahá's Secret of Divine Civilization
Publisher: Bahá'í Publishing Trust (many editions)
Review by: Barbara Casterline
"The happiness and pride of a nation consist in this, that it should shine out like the sun in the high heaven of knowledge."  This was 'Abdu'l-Bahá's hope for His native Persia, that it should shine with wisdom as it had in earlier ages. Seeing Persia as it was in 1875, fast in a "drunken sleep," the "object of pity, deplored by all nations;" the young 'Abdu'l-Bahá addressed The Secret of Divine Civilization
to the Shah and people of Persia anonymously, with one purpose, He said, "to promote the general welfare." He called upon all to join Him in this effort:
We must now highly resolve to arise and lay hold of all those instrumentalities that promote the peace and well-being and happiness, the knowledge, culture and industry, the dignity, value and station, of the entire human race. Thus, through the restoring waters of pure intention and unselfish effort, the earth of human potentialities will blossom with its own latent excellence and flower into praiseworthy qualities, and bear and flourish until it comes to rival that rosegarden of knowledge which belonged to our forefathers.
'Abdu'l-Bahá emphasized the need for good government in order that a backward nation might become advanced, an ignorant people enlightened, an impoverished country wealthy. He praised the Shah for forming Persia's first parliament "by the grace of God and the spiritual influence of His universal manifestation," but warned that great results cannot be expected from legislatures and parliaments unless the members are qualified. The members of "assemblies of consultation" must be both right-minded and knowledgeable:
First, the elected members must be righteous, God-fearing, high-minded, incorruptible. Second, they must be 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.
And lest we despair of ever finding such members, 'Abdu'l-Bahá assured us that they would not be impossible to find.
As the legislature depends upon learned men, 'Abdu'l-Bahá spent the greater part of His book describing the learned man[33-105].
So this book will surely be one of those we shall turn to when it comes to the setting up of Bahá'í universities for the training of future leaders of society - the members of "assemblies of consultation."
In outlining His subject, 'Abdu'l-Bahá turned to one of the authoritative utterances of Muhammad, which states: "As for him who is one of the learned: he must guard himself, defend his faith, oppose his passions and obey the commandments of his Lord." He then expounded each of the points in turn.
First, to "guard oneself," He said, does not mean to avoid tests, as the prophets and saints have never done so, but to acquire the attributes of spiritual and material perfection.[34-5]
Second, to "defend one's faith," He said, does not mean only to observe its forms, but to promote it throughout the world.
Third, in calling upon leaders to "oppose their passions," He pointed to "the supreme desire" of the governments of His day to "conquer and crush one another", so that opposing this passion would be to seek wholeheartedly for peace.
Fourth, "obedience to the commandments of the Lord" is the very cause, He said, of "the progress, achievement, and happiness of man." It is certain that the greatest of instrumentalities for achieving the advancement and the glory of man, the supreme agency for the enlightenment and the redemption of the world, is love and fellowship and unity among all the members of the human race. Nothing can be effected in the world, not even conceivably, without unity and agreement, and the perfect means for engendering fellowship and union is true religion.
He then showed what great changes took place in western culture as the result of the revelations of Jesus and later Muhammad and alluded to the new revelation of Bahá'u'lláh by announcing to the people of Persia that, "The winds of the true springtide are passing over you ... the dawn star is shining ... the sea of might is swelling ..."[104- 105] Returning to the first requirement of the truly learned, that of acquiring the attributes of spiritual and material perfection, we see what high standards 'Abdu'l-Bahá has set. Among the attributes of perfection, He said, are learning and the cultural attainments of the mind; justice and impartiality - regarding humanity as a single individual; arising with complete sincerity and purity of purpose to educate the masses; fearing God; loving God by loving His servants; the exercise of mildness and forbearance and calm; being sincere, amenable, clement and compassionate; having resolution and courage; trustworthiness and energy, striving and struggle; being generous, loyal, without malice; having zeal and a sense of honor; being high-minded and magnanimous, and having regard for the rights of others. "Whoever is lacking in these excellent human qualities is defective," He said![35-40] Of all these attributes, 'Abdu'l-Bahá gave learning first and foremost. Suppose a member of any consultative body wanted to follow His advice and acquire "learning and the cultural attainments of the mind," what would he need to know? 'Abdu'l-Bahá spelled out a complete curriculum:
...This eminent station is achieved when the individual combines in himself a thorough knowledge of those complex and transcendental realities pertaining to God, of the fundamental truths of Qur'ánic political and religious law, of the contents of the sacred Scriptures of other faiths, and of those regulations and procedures which would contribute to the progress and civilization of this distinguished country. He should in addition be informed as to the laws and principles, the customs, conditions and manners, and the material and moral virtues characterizing the statecraft of other nations, and should be well versed in all the useful branches of learning of the day, and study the historical records of bygone governments and peoples. For if a learned individual has no knowledge of the sacred Scriptures and the entire field of divine and natural science, of religious jurisprudence and the arts of government and the varied learning of the time and the great events of history, he might prove unequal to an emergency, and this is inconsistent with the necessary qualification of comprehensive knowledge.[35-6]
But where are we to find the "comprehensively learned individual"? Even 'Abdu'l-Bahá said they were "hard to come by." His solution, until such time as comprehensive education is a fact, is to form a body of scholars, "the various groups of whose membership would each be expert in one of the aforementioned branches of knowledge. This body should with the greatest energy and vigor deliberate as to all present and future requirements, and bring about equilibrium and order."
By this means can the reforms badly needed in each country be brought about. 'Abdu'l-Bahá listed many of those needed by Persia of His time: a definite procedure for the settlement of disputes so that decisions would not be appealed from one court to another interminably, a limit to the authority of provincial governors so that they could not hand out death sentences at will, the elimination of bribery, and so on. He urged that Persians not be afraid to try out foreign ideas, even though those ideas might come from people the Persians considered infidels. The important thing is the results:
If the country were built up, the roads repaired, the lot of the helpless improved by various means, the poor rehabilitated, the masses set on the path to progress, the revenues of public wealth increased, the scope of education widened, the government properly organized, and the free exercise of the individual's rights, and the security of his person and property, his dignity and good name, assured...
A glittering culture is not the goal of all this striving and change, for civilization is only the means to an end. The end is human happiness. "The primary purpose, the basic objective," said 'Abdu'l-Bahá, "in laying down powerful laws and setting up great principles and institutions dealing with every aspect of civilization, is human happiness." And what is human happiness? He said, "...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 greatest blessing for an individual is "that he should become the cause of the education, the development, the prosperity and the honor of his fellow-creatures."
The highest righteousness of all is for blessed souls to take hold of the hands of the helpless and deliver them out of their ignorance and abasement and poverty, and with pure motives, and only for the sake of God, to arise and energetically devote themselves to the service of the masses, forgetting their own worldly advantage and working only to serve the general good.