Review

A complex vision that transcends all categories

Logos and Civilization: Spirit, History, and Order in the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh
by Nader Saiedi
University Press of Maryland
Bethesda, MD, USA

As humanity's interdependence has increasingly manifested itself, scholars of various disciplines have begun to examine more thoroughly the writings of Bahá'u'lláh, whose vision of human oneness and call for a new world order are without doubt one of the earliest expressions of peaceful and universal globalism.

Writing in the mid-to-late 19th century, Bahá'u'lláh urged men and women everywhere to consider themselves as citizens of the world, called on political leaders to found a united international commonwealth, and summoned faith leaders to recognize the commonality of all religions.

In the process, He offered a radical new interpretation of human history, outlined a new conception of human nature, and founded an independent new religion, the Bahá'í Faith.

In Logos and Civilization: Spirit, History, and Order in the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, sociologist Nader Saiedi undertakes one of the first systematic studies of the major themes in Bahá'u'lláh's writings, comparing them not only across the corpus of His major works but also to related currents of thought in the 19th century and before.

Dr. Saiedi considers a wide range of topics, from theology to environmentalism to political theory. He analyzes the meaning of Persian and Arabic terms used in the original works and provides a detailed description of the historical context in which they were written. The result is a breathtaking and energetic contribution to the emerging field of Bahá'í studies.

Among the main conclusions reached by Dr. Saiedi are that key themes of globalism (or human oneness), non-violence, and universal revelation (or the oneness of God and religion) are consistently reflected across the entire span of Bahá'u'lláh's writings, which were revealed over the course of more than 30 years and ranged in style from mystical to expository.

These findings come as something of a rebuttal to other recent examinations of Bahá'u'lláh's writings, which have sought, as Dr. Saiedi himself notes, "to make the message and vision of Bahá'u'lláh fit into the mold of traditional Eastern categories from Neoplatonism to Islamic Sufism, or modern Western ones from liberalism to postmodernism."

"However," writes Dr. Saiedi, "Bahá'u'lláh's complex vision transcends all of the given Eastern or Western categories, whether traditional or modern, and ... His writings must be read on their own terms and in light of their own hermeneutical principles and creative and novel approaches to metaphysics, mysticism, historical dynamics, ethics and social/political theory."

Indeed, if there is a single contribution that comes from Logos and Civilization, it is in demonstrating the consistency and originality of Bahá'u'lláh's writings, across a wide range of topics, from theology to global governance.

Dr. Saiedi, who is a professor of sociology at Carleton College in Minnesota, USA, accomplishes this largely through a close reading of key texts of Bahá'u'lláh, and by showing that even in His earliest writings, themes of peaceful universalism are clearly present. He also draws sharp contrasts between Bahá'u'lláh's teachings and the currents of thought about human nature, religion and globalism that were prevalent at the time.

Take Dr. Saiedi's analysis of Bahá'u'lláh's teachings on world order.

As noted, Bahá'u'lláh in the late 1860s called for the establishment of a united world commonwealth, based on the concept of world citizenship, aimed at bringing about a new age of peace and security for all humanity.

Some scholars have suggested that Bahá'u'lláh was influenced by European philosophers, such as Saint-Simon (1760-1825), who proposed, among other things, that the states of Europe form an association to suppress war, an idea which is sometimes seen as the harbinger of world federalism and collective security.

"The attempt to link Bahá'u'lláh's vision of peace and global unity to Saint-Simon's political theory is… far-fetched and underestimates the creativity and uniqueness of Bahá'u'lláh's vision," Dr. Saiedi writes.

"[W]hat Saint-Simon advocated was the unification of Western Europe," Dr. Saiedi continues. "Saint-Simon's idea of European cooperation was based on the assumption of the superiority of Europeans and the violent subjugation of inferior non-Europeans... European unity was a means of strengthening European productive capacity (industrialism) and extending European domination."

In contrast, Dr. Saiedi writes, Bahá'u'lláh's "vision of unity was not a shifting, eclectic product of random external influences, nor was it the effect of mere utopian and moral idealism. On the contrary, He saw the world as an essentially spiritual organic unity and He perceived the historic need for a global ethics - not as an expedient practicality, but as the next developmental stage in the collective spiritual journey of humankind."

"He elaborated in a systematic way all the different requirements of such an organic and fundamental vision, including unity in religion, language, and international political structures; social justice; consultative and democratic governance; and the like," Dr. Saiedi continues.

Dr. Saiedi's analysis is not limited, however, to concepts of world order and governance. The first part of the book deals primarily with Bahá'u'lláh's theology, which he says offers a revolutionary new understanding of spiritual reality.

In one section, Dr. Saiedi argues that Bahá'u'lláh's explanation of humanity's relationship to God transcends virtually every previous effort to categorize religious belief systems.

He notes, for example, that sociologist Max Weber divides all previous religious theologies into two types: asceticism and mysticism.

"According to Weber, asceticism is in principle a theological orientation according to which God is a transcendental reality outside of the world," Dr. Saiedi writes. "In this doctrine, the invisible realm of God is the sacred realm, whereas the material and natural world is one of evil and corruption."

Weber believed, Dr. Saiedi writes, that such a worldview leads its followers towards "economic development, capitalist expansion, and industrialization," often at great cost to the environment.

"Mysticism, Weber assumed, would lead to the opposite implication of asceticism," Dr. Saiedi writes. "According to mysticism, God is immanent in the world so that nature and God become identical realities… The goal of life and dominant orientation is to attain harmony and unity with nature rather than its conquest and transformation."

Bahá'í theology, however, fits neither of the models given in Weber's typology, Dr. Saiedi writes, and can instead be termed "harmonious transcendence."

"[T]he principle of harmonious transcendence is compatible with both respect for nature as well as motivation for progress and development," Dr. Saiedi concludes.

Other subjects treated in the book include a comparison and contrast of Bahá'u'lláh's writings to Sufi mysticism, Kant's critique of reason, and the writings of John Stuart Mill on liberal democratic theory.

Not only will those who are specifically interested in Bahá'í history, theology and worldview find this book of immense importance, but educated readers, scholars and thinkers of all types will find it enlightening for its wide-ranging journey through critical ideas related to modern theology, philosophy, and political theory.

Logos and Civilization is published by the University Press of Maryland. It can be ordered by visiting http://www.bahai-studies.ca/price_list.html or by contacting directly the Association for Baha'i Studies 34 Copernicus Street Ottawa, ON K1N 7K4 CANADA tel: 613-233-1903 fax: 613-233-3644 email: abs-na@istar.ca

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