Inspired by what’s happening in Ukraine, I recently read the 1919 Tablet to The Hague. What does Abdu’l-Baha say about peace and how to get it? I was surprised at what I found. Below I give an outline of Abdu’l-Baha’s argument. When it is reduced to its basic structure, interesting ideas emerge.
After complimenting his correspondents on their goal of world peace, Abdu’l-Baha launches into his first major point: that focusing solely on peace will not bring about peace. Boiling the matter down to one issue will not influence the consciences of people. “Unity of conscience”, he says, is required to ensure the long-term stability of peace. Many other underlying issues need to be addressed so that everyone buys into the peace ideal.
From here, Abdu’l-Baha does an overview of principles he has extracted from Baha’u’llah’s teachings. He discusses:
- Universal peace
- The independent investigation of reality
- The oneness of humanity
- Religion conforming to science and reason
- Eliminating religious prejudice and enmity
- Eliminating patriotic, economic and political prejudice
- The equality of the sexes
- The voluntary sharing of one’s property
- Humanity’s freedom from the captivity of the world of nature
- Religion’s power to prevent sin
- Material civilisation requiring divine/spiritual civilisation
- Establishing universal education
- Establishing justice and what is right
- Establishing a supreme tribunal to determine disputes between nations.
Abdu’l-Baha describes these principles as a smorgasbord of delicious foods that everyone can eat from. The issue of peace needs to be combined with all the above – ie, the teachings of Baha’u’llah as a whole – so that everyone can find what satisfies them.
Abdu’l-Baha moves on to the second major theme of his letter. He argues that, in the world of humanity, where one sees construction, development and the like, it is the result of love and fellowship, and where one sees destruction, ruin and a chaotic wilderness, it is the result of enmity and hatred. This principle is witnessed at work in the world of existence. Contingent things are composed of numerous different, simple elements, and it is by bringing these elements together that a being is created. All union contributes to beauty and freshness. When a composition is destroyed, the contingent thing is annihilated. Therefore, in the world of humanity, when differences of “thoughts, forms, opinions, and characters and morals” are all under the power of God, this causes life, useful results and beauty. But disharmony, disputes, repulsion and war causes the decay and annihilation of humanity. People are not aware of this principle, and so they engage in wrangling and strife.
Abdu’l-Baha addresses an objection: “since the communities and nations and races and peoples… have different formalities, customs, tastes, temperaments, morals, varied thoughts, minds and opinions, it is therefore impossible” for humanity to unite.
Abdu’l-Baha’s response is that differences are of two kinds:
- Differences that are the result of disputes, war and competition. These differences lead to destruction and are blameworthy.
- Differences that are the result of variation. “The differences in manners, in customs, in habits, in thoughts, opinions and in temperaments is the cause of the adornment of the world of mankind.” These differences constitute perfection and cause the divine bounty to appear. They are praiseworthy. They are all under the divine spirit and, like the parts of the body, when they work together, they produce beauty. Difference and variation “strengthen love and harmony and… multiplicity is the greatest aid to unity”.
Abdu’l-Baha finishes by saying that only the Word of God, which encompasses all reality, can bring the varying thoughts, minds, hearts and spirits of people together. Baha’u’llah has achieved this through his revelation.
What is the takeaway from this? I thought Abdu’l-Baha’s clever distinction between the two kinds of difference was extremely important. I had not come across this explanation before. Abdu’l-Baha seems to be saying that difference is a natural aspect of the reality of humanity, and that these differences are inherently good and part of the perfection of humanity’s creation. However, if these natural differences become the source of contention, then that contention (another kind of difference) is blameworthy. Differences that are a feature of the created world are good, and differences that are at the root of contention are wrong. I see this as a real challenge to people. It means that all natural differences must be accommodated and viewed as a part of the created world. These differences are under the power of the Word, which unifies them and creates beauty out of their combinations.
My other takeaway from this outline is that it is a commentary on Baha’u’llah’s principle that “the purpose of justice is the appearance of unity” (Words of Paradise, no 6, in Tablets of Baha’u’llah). Loosely speaking, the principles that Abdu’l-Baha discusses, which I have listed above, are all related to establishing justice, human rights and truth. Unless these issues are addressed, there will be no peace because oppression and untruth cannot form the basis of lasting peace. This is illustrated now with the war in Ukraine. Putin wants to impose on Ukraine a peace that fits with his idle fancies, his vision of a glorious Russian empire, but his vision requires the subjugation of a nation and burying the truth. He doesn’t know about the principles, outlined above, by which existence functions. It is impossible to establish peace by subjugating people and denying the truth. That is why even if Ukraine gave up the Donbas, it would not lead to peace.