The Birth of Baha’u’llah and the Spirit of the Age

Shut your eyes to estrangement, then fix your gaze upon unity… This span of earth is but one homeland and one habitation. -Baha’u’llah (1817-1892)

What possible connection could a Persian prisoner in a culturally stunted corner of the 19th century mideast have with the progressive spirit of our age? The spirit of a beaten mankind arising, phoenix-like, from the ashes of pride and prejudice to the glory of unity and brotherhood. Well, everything.

Biased though I may be, as a Baha’i I also embrace wholeheartedly the inspiration of every visionary that has called for a wider appreciation of humanity. Thoreau, Tolstoy, Gandhi and Dr. King come readily to mind. Today Baha’is everywhere gather to commemorate the 196th anniversary of the birth of Baha’u’llah. It would be only befitting to pause and glance at the quiet revolution of human consciousness brought about by this serene child prodigy born on 12 November, 1817 to one Khadijih Khanum and Mirza Buzurg.

A few years back I threw myself into an amateur historical research project. Mainly for my own sport. My ambitious purport was to scan through all the known historical figures preceding Baha’u’llah. Leastways those that have mentioned the unity of mankind or the brotherhood of man, even if only passingly. At the outset I summarily dismissed all hypocritical imperialist declarations and manifests for world peace. Such as the Roman Pax Romana or the Nazi German “one People, one Nation, one Leader.” The “world-embracing” aim of these campaigns was tainted from the start by their square rejection of equal humanity. My little research project yielded fruit. Out of the welter of dead men and women emerged some dozen more or less renowned historical figures worthy of serious consideration.

One of the most awe-inspiring verses on world unity preceding Baha’u’llah is from his medieval compatriot — Persian poet Sa’adi (1184-1283). The poem depicts the world as a body whose members feel one another’s hurt. This famous poem is also displayed on the wall of the UN General Assembly in New York.

Of One Essence is the Human Race,
Thusly has Creation put the Base.
One Limb impacted is sufficient,
For all Others to feel the Mace.
The Unconcern’d with Others’ Plight,
Are but Brutes with Human Face.

British poets Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) and William Blake (1757-1827), both slightly older contemporaries of Baha’u’llah, envisioned in a few isolated verses a unified future world. Particularly Tennyson’s famous words in his poem “Locksley Hall” (written in 1835) ring near-prophetic in their panoramic vision. But the poem is in fact more dystopian than utopian. It depicts a war-weary soldier deciding to interrupt his march to enter a house known as the Locksley Hall. Inside the house he drifts down the memory lane back to his childhood, allowing youthful dreams of a “Parliament of Man” and a “Federation of the world” where “the war-drum throbb’d no longer” to soothe him in his sorrows.

Ancient Hindu scripture, namely the Maha Upanishad, tells about the magnanimous man for whom there are no “strangers” — for whom “the entire world constitutes but a family.” (Chapter 6, Verse 72) The prophet Isaiah (circa 800-700 BC) as well as Jesus of Nazareth (circa. 2 BC – 30 AD) prophesied a future “Kingdom of God” to be established on “earth”. The vision of Isaiah paints perhaps the most well-known vista of the great peace: “…and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (KJV, Isaiah 2:4) Socrates (circa 469-399 BC) is told to have declared: “I am not Athenian nor Greek, but a citizen of the world.” The very term ”cosmopolitan” (ie. ”world citizen”) appears to trace back to this statement. Needless to say, the term “world” had a somewhat different connotation in the Hellenic Age than today.

Prophet Muhammad (570-632) reveals in the Qur’an how mankind was in the beginning a “single nation” (002.213) and that the diversity of sexes, tribes and nations were created for the sole purpose of us coming “to know one another.” (049.013) William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879), the American abolitionist, declared after the manner of similar statements by Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and Thomas Paine (1737-1809), that “our country is the world — our countrymen are all mankind.” German philosopher and freemason Karl Krause (1781-1832) speculated, in his essay “The Archetype of Man” (1811), about the possibility of a world republic consisting of continental federations.

These few statements constitute the main findings of my little foray into history. Similar declarations from other figures cannot be ruled out. But I daresay they haven’t left much of a dent on mankind’s collective memory. A common denominator of most of these sages was that their vision for universal brotherhood was either a distant and dream-like longing or a political theory. Only the statements of Isaiah and Jesus constituted a confident prophecy, yet ones of a distant future. Only Karl Krause set forth the “unity” of mankind as an explicit notion. But for him “oneness” meant a literal esoteric union of earth, man and God.

The Prisoner had no interest in dreaming and speculation. Baha’u’llah championed the cause of unity. Even this is a gross understatement. He appears to be the sole historical figure to have personally taken upon the task of uniting all mankind. Not instantly, but as his words and ideas slowly permeate the world. The “perversity” of mankind, according to his own prophecy, “will long continue”. The diffusion of his ideas would not happen overnight. Yet he declared that the time for unification is now if mankind is to avoid further, and more violent, conflict and bloodshed.

The great Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948), some half a century later, chose to restrict his own noble mission to the attainment of India’s independence and unification. He succeeded in the former while he admitted, with regret, to failing at the latter. Far from limiting himself to mere national emancipation or poetic device, Baha’u’llah’s explicitly called for the “unification” of all mankind. He gave lucid descriptions on the nature of such a unity, the stages, both destructive and collaborative, whereby mankind will attain it, the institutions needed for its maintenance, and prophecies as to its final achievement. Never did Baha’u’llah cherish mankind’s unification as a hopeful dream or a utopian vision. Not even as his personal belief. He regarded it a certain and inevitable fact. Baha’u’llah stressed that mankind is one and interdependent whether or not it will admit it. The well-being and security of mankind hinge on mankind’s acute awareness of its own interdependence.

The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.

Lastly, Baha’u’llah seems to be the only figure in known history to declare the unification of mankind as the Will of God Himself. His personal commandment to all the world’s peoples. A commandment the observance of which will produce well-being and security, both personal and planetary, and whose disobedience will unavoidably result in worsening worldwide havoc. He declared the unity of mankind to be, in our day and age, “the monarch of all aspirations.”

That one indeed is a man who, today, dedicateth himself to the service of the entire human race.

Yet one fact renders Baha’u’llah’s universalism truly extraordinary. Almost all of his high-minded contemporaries — poets, philosophers, political visionaries — who had in one way or another longed for common weal, were Western aristocrats inspired by the American and French revolutions. All of them were well-schooled and well-respected fixtures in the social elite, pampered with luxuries and ease. What was Baha’u’llah? An inmate, an outcast, a victim of unrelenting oppression. He had never had the time nor luxury to immerse into books, much less to attend colleges. He grew up in a culturally sunken corner of the world fanatically opposed to every social reform and innovation. He paid for his peaceful calling with the plundering of his wealth, a life of imprisonment, and the torture and mass-murder of his admirers. Meanwhile the enlightened minds of his Western contemporaries soared from their leather armchairs, teak wood desks and calabash pipes within the comfort of stately manors.

And yet it was this far-off Exile in Ottoman Palestine who remains the sole figure in history to make unity his life mission and to set it for all men and women of our time as “the monarch of all aspirations.” Ironically, my confidence in the eventual establishment of world unity rests on the utter failure of torture, defamation and two score years of incarceration to quench the undying fire for worldwide fellowship burning within the breast of but one Man. One whose pen refused to halt despite trembling from the effects of poison until the end of his days. Whose dignity could not be robbed by 100-pound iron chains that had cut into his flesh and hunched him for life. One whose crime was to claim to have brought a new commandment of oneness from God.

Baha’is are simply those that have taken Baha’u’llah’s mission to their heart. They have adopted it as a collective programme entrusted by God no less. Yet one does not, and need not, become a Baha’i to feel welcome to participate in Baha’i activities aimed at creating service-oriented communities unified in their diversity. For the ultimate aim of Baha’u’llah was not to gain converts, but to transform the world.

About the Author

Sam Karvonen

Sam Karvonen is a globe-trotter, a truth-seeker and an aid worker turned into a defence analyst. A ridiculously fortunate husband and a thoroughly entertained father. Oh, and a Baha'i of course.

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Discussion 17 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing your insights from your research. From a historical perspective the impact of Baha’u’llah’s message simply cannot be understated. The technological advances since then is awe-inspiring, and from a literary standpoint the volume and content of His writings is unsurpassed. It was great to read from your historical perspective how His world-embracing vision is permeating the Earth!

  2. Wonderful!!! Thank you so much for creating this beautiful summary of your research on the almost eve of the celebration of the birth of the Lord of this Age!!

  3. I appreciated your essay. Would you please allow me to read it on my TV program “Question Time” in answer to the question, “Who is Responsible for the Spirit of This Age?” Sam Karvonen would be given full credit. I would also like to post the program on my YouTube account.
    Thanks for your conseration.

    1. Dear Bill, feel free to use the text any way you please, but I would rather not take any personal credit. What a kind thought though. Thank you.

      You all are very kind in your remarks. The life and words of Baha’u’llah, when simply presented in their proper historical contexts, make an impression pretty much on their own accord.

      A blessed, blessed Holy Day to everyone.

      1. Dear Sam

        It’s in pursuit of seeing your highly praised essay polished to the nth degree that I belatedly raise some points of consultation:

        Your third last paragraph includes a clause opponents of the Faith might misconstrue or ridicule:
        ‘He had never had the time nor luxury to immerse into books;…’
        Assuming momentarily the role of devil’s advocate let me ask how you understand His princely position in Persian society from 1817 to when His station was revealed to Him in 1852. Do you mean that once He had assumed the title ‘Baha’u’llah’ He then had little reading time and no real access to books? By including the clause about ‘colleges’ to the sentence in question you seem to be saying that He never had, even in His youth before becoming the Glory of God, substantial access to books.

        Your very last sentence seems prima facie to this amateur to convey a non-sequitur element:
        ‘For the ultimate aim of Baha’u’llah was not to gain converts, but to transform the world.’
        Isn’t gaining converts to the Baha’i Faith from among the legions of atheists today and from the Churches and Traditions that still worship idols one important means, if not the ultimate means, of transforming the world. Didn’t He try to gain converts AND thereby with their help transform the world? So many are the modern commentaries on the word ‘convert’ both as a noun and as a verb that some writers seem defensively set against it. Isn’t ‘gaining converts’ synonymous with teaching the Faith? Perhaps some more info on the oneness of religion will do away with the negative nuances re ‘convert’.

        The conclusion vis-à-vis your November 11th post to Bill merits comment in my opinion re an absurdity, not in your essay, but in the English language surrounding the word ’embellish’.

        ‘The life and words of Baha’u’llah, when portrayed pretty much as they are and in their proper context, obviously do their trick quite without any need of embellishment.’

        On one hand the Oxford dictionary defines ’embellish’ as ‘to adorn or to beautify’ which in the case of portraying Baha’u’llah’s life is a meritorious act achieved by Balyuzi, Taherzadeh et al and on the other hand Oxford writes: ‘to add to the narrative with fictitious additions’. How my (and your?) ancestors in England and France conjured a word whose definitions look to me like contradictions is beyond my ken, mon ami.

        Baha’i love

        Paul

  4. Lovely work as usual dear Sam with its Poet Laureate’s ‘vision of the world’ united, only attainable in adherence to Baha’u’llah’s teachings as recommended in the sentence you’ve extracted from Gleanings 117: :”That one indeed is a man who, today, dedicateth himself to the service of the entire human race.” Perhaps the most widely known saying in all of the Writings follows on immediately: “The Great Being saith: Blessed and happy is he that ariseth to promote the best interests of the peoples and kindreds of the earth. In another passage He hath proclaimed: It is not for him to pride himself who loveth his own country, but rather for him who loveth the whole world. THE EARTH IS BUT ONE COUNTRY, AND MANKIND ITS CITIZENS.” The other short half of that same Gleanings 117 depicts along with the vision an actual concrete cure which appeared in detail here on this blog a week or two ago.

    The same happy vision of a world at peace is referenced by the Master who as you would expect gives, as with his illustrious Father in 117 in the same unequivocal terms, the same concrete means of implementing the vision, itself so reminiscent of the same Isaiah quoted in your post – the Faith of Baha’u’llah. Clearly, it is the precise means of achieving the utopian vision thus bringing about the demilitarization of the nations and a transformation of society which is NOT spelled out by poets and visionaries of past eras nor by previous Manifestations of God even.

    “…it will hasten that day, that millennial day, which has been prophesied by the past prophets and seers, that day in which, it is said, the wolf and the lamb will drink from the same fount, the lion and the deer graze in the same meadow. The signification of this Holy Writ is that the contesting races, warring nations, inimical religions, will come to each other in the spirit of love and amity — then, the day-spring of that millennium; and every means, every instrument which confers unity and amity upon the children of men, that is love and that is the spirit.
    “As we said, the greatest affair in this world is the reality of an auxiliary international language. The unification of language will transform the world of humanity into one world; the unification of language will do away with the misunderstandings between religions, and the unification of language will bring together the East and the West in the spirit of fellowship and love. The unification of language will change this world of many families into one family. This auxiliary international language will gather the various races under one cover, as if the five continents of the world had become one continent, because then they can convey their thoughts to each other. The international auxiliary language will do away with ignorance and superstition, for each child, no matter to which race or nation he may belong, will be able to pursue his studies in science and art, because at that time he will be called on to study two languages — one his own native language, and one the international auxiliary language. Let us hope for that day, when even the boundaries of native languages will be swept away and the world will enjoy one language. What greater bounty is there than this? What more munificent welfare is there than this? Then the world of humanity will become the delectable paradise, just as it is said that in heaven there is one language. The material world will become the expression of the world of the inner. Then discoveries will be unfolded; inventions will become multiple; sciences will advance by leaps and bounds; scientific agriculture will take a wider sphere of accomplishment, because at that time the nations will be able quickly to assimilate the thoughts which are expressed, and because all these thoughts will be expressed in that universal language. If this international language is a factor in the future, all the countries of the East will be enabled to acquire the sciences of the West in no time, because they will be able to read these books and comprehend their meaning; and the Western nations will be enabled to acquire the thoughts and ideas of the East, and through this they will be enabled to improve their condition. In short, on account of the establishment of this international language, the world of humanity will become another world; extraordinary progress will be attained. Take, for example, a family in which the various members speak each a different language; how difficult it is for them to convey their thoughts to one another and how great and wonderful it is when they are able easily to understand one another’s thoughts. For if they know one another’s language, they will go on very rapidly; there is no doubt whatever about this.”

    ‘Abdu’l-Baha Abbas

    Obviously ‘the greatest affair’ i.e. ‘the reality of an international auxiliary language’ was not revealed to Tennyson, to Sa’adi, to Isaiah nor even to Muhammad or the Bab. The vision, as with the cure, the practical cure, God revealed at length and in detail to Baha’u’llah whose son expanded even more copiously as to the means of implementation

    Baha’i love

    Paul

  5. For my money Sam’s essay is the best I’ve read on the subject since the statement on Baha’u’llah published back in 1991. That statement was prepared at the request of the House of Justice by the then Office of Public Information at the Baha’i World Centre. That statement of the Baha’i International Community is much longer than Sam’s essay, and I encourage those who enjoyed Mr Karvonen’s essay, to have a look at that statement which was made into a book for use during the Holy Year 1992-1993. I have placed Sam’s essay at my website and, in the process, thank him for an essay whose tone and style was very appealing, indeed, a pleasure to read. Sam’s essay is at this link: http://www.ronpriceepoch.com/Babi.html

    1. Thank you Ron for your encouragement and for using Sam’s post on your site. When using Baha’i Blog posts on your site, can you please make sure you provide your readers with a link to original article on Baha’i Blog’s site? Thanks!

  6. This was a really fine piece. It confirmed some fairly vague thinking I’ve been doing for a long time. A term I learned in studying China was the notion of an “axial period”, a time which was the pivot-point for the development of the best of Chinese civilization. It’s set at about 2500 B.C.E., around the time of the ministries of both Kongzi (Confucius) and Laozi (Lao-tse), and of Buddha, whose teachings came to China a few generations later. I am convinced that the 19th century will be considered by future generations as being the turning point for a global civilization, the time when ancient prophecies and diffuse contemporary hopes (as Mr. Karvonen lists them) came to be distilled and reinforced a thousand times in the potent and world-transforming life and revelation of Baha’u’llah. It’s amazing to think about.

    We lack a lot of stories about the birth of Baha’u’llah, which may be just as well. Rather than getting wrapped up in myth and miracle, we can appreciate and celebrate His birth according to the New Testament standard put forward by Jesus Christ regarding future Messengers and inspired teachers: “by their fruits ye shall know them”. Year by year, decade by century, we are seeing ever more clearly the fruits of the life of the Master’s Master. November 12, 2017 is going to be a big and meaningful commemoration, two hundred years on from that “culturally stunted corner” where and when Mirza Husayn Ali was born.

  7. Hi Zia’od and James

    Sounds like you’ve read or admire as I do Karen Armstrong’s “The Great Transformation” which tells of ‘The World in the Time of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah’, i.e. an axial and pivotal time in history. One of Britain’s famous newspapers gave an in depth and i m o
    overly critical and skeptical review I appreciated nevertheless for its various insights :

    http://www.theguardian.com/books/2006/mar/18/highereducation.news

    Baha’i love

    Paul

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