Race, Religion and Progress in the Talks and Actions of Abdu'l-Bahá

By Robert Stockman

First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #107
Louhelen Bahá'í Center: Davison, Michigan, USA
October 7–10, 2011
(see list of papers from #107)

    The nineteenth century dialogue among civilizations focused on several themes; among them, race, religion, and progress were particularly prominent. Race and religion related to the question of which culture was the best fitted to shape the future of humanity, which was living on a world shrunken by the telegraph and the power of steam. An historian of religion in America speaks of the "conflation of race, religion, and progress" as a dominant theme in American discourse during the period; in other words, that white people, possessing the superior religion (Christianity in its Protestant form) were fitted by God to lead human progress forward. Other western colonial powers had their own form of this discourse. In response, nineteenth century Indians, Chinese, Arabs, Persians, and Japanese crafted their own responses to the notion of the superiority of white Christian civilization and put forth their own claims.

    When one looks at the revelation of Bahá'u'lláh in the context of this discourse, the revelation can be seen as a response to and reformulation of arguments about race, religion, and progress. The oneness of humanity is a response to the notion that a particular race is superior; the oneness of religion constitutes a response to the notion that a particular religion is superior; and the Bahá'í revelation in general offers a definition of what "progress" should look like.

    `Abdu'l-Bahá's first contribution to this discourse was The Secret of Divine Civilization (1875), which fleshed out both spiritual and practical aspects of development and progress. His Occidental sojourn provided numerous opportunities to flesh out his arguments and expand on aspects of them. In over 400 North American talks, He emphasized the oneness of humanity and the oneness of religion in particular, and expatiated on certain related principles, such as equality of the sexes, the union of blacks and whites, and the need for universal education. He also stressed the danger of imminent war in Europe; a war that shattered the notion of the superiority of western Christian civilization, 1914-18. In His many talks before African Americans and Japanese Americans he spoke about the oneness of humanity in frank and bold terms. His encouragement of Louisa Mathew and Louis Gregory to marry concretely demonstrated implications of the oneness of humanity that were unrecognized or rejected by liberal Christians. His numerous visits to settlement houses underscored the Bahá'í commitment to raising the poor out of poverty.

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