June 18, 2023 will mark 40 years since 10 Baha’i women were hanged in Shiraz. Their only ‘crime’ was their refusal to renounce their beliefs in a faith that promotes the principles of gender equality, unity, justice, and truthfulness. This collection highlights Baha’i Blog content relating to the ongoing persecution of Baha’is in Iran.
One of the key goals of the Baha’i Faith is to help end war and achieve world peace. While this has also been the goal of many thinkers throughout history, thousands continue to die each year from war and its consequences. So what do the Baha’i Writings say about this issue?
To answer this, I use a framework developed by Kenneth Waltz in his classic text Man, the State and War, which begins by asking: “What causes war?” This is an important question because, just as one must understand cancer to cure it, war and its causes must be understood in order to reduce it. In his review of the literature on this question, Waltz finds that there are basically three answers to this question, which he calls “the three images”. These images claim that war is caused by:
1) Human nature. 2) War-like states. 3) The international system.
In this post, I summarize these three images and offer my understanding of what the Baha’i Writings say about each.
The first image: Human Nature
The first image claims that human nature causes wars. This belief is justified by religious traditions that see sin and evil as inherent to human. Secularists, however, have also linked war to a variety of human traits such as passion, ambition and aggression, often linking them to the human need to survive. From this perspective, wars are instinctual clashes similar to battles between animals for resources. Social Darwinism takes this view even further, seeing war as beneficial for strengthening the human species by only allowing the strongest and most capable to survive and prosper.
The Baha’i Writings add insight to this image by offering a more complex view of human nature. Whereas most thinkers offer a singular conception, Baha’is see a dual nature, encompassing both a material and spiritual side. The former involves following one’s earthly desires, while the latter requires a conscious effort to nurture one’s spirit each day. As Abdu’l-Baha wrote:
In man there are two natures; his spiritual or higher nature and his material or lower nature. In one he approaches God, in the other he lives for the world alone.
Abdu’l-Baha. Paris Talks. (London, UK: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1971), p.60
While these natures are united in many ways, they are also distinct in the methods by which they flourish and the actions they manifest. In addition, Baha’is view humans as inherently noble at birth. It is through our conscious actions that we can either move closer to our creator or be further removed. In The Hidden Words, Baha’u’llah points to this, writing,
Noble I made thee, wherewith dost thou abase thyself?
Baha’u’llah, Hidden Word 13 (from the Arabic).
If war does indeed start in the minds of men, as UNESCO charter’s preamble claims, then the Baha’i Writings offer hope as people can change through spiritual transformation. Such a change requires shifting one’s focus to a power already inside us. According to The Hidden Words, one must…
Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self subsisting.
The second image: War-like States
The second image sees the internal organization of the state as the key to understanding war. Within this image, the world is comprised of good or peaceful and bad or war-waging states. What constitutes a ‘good state’ is a contested issue, but many thinkers agree that democracy, in which the people govern themselves, is best for promoting peace. According to Immanuel Kant, people are generally more reluctant to go to war in democracies because they have a personal stake in its outcome. Mothers, it was argued, would not send their sons to die if they had a say in the decision to wage war. It is dictators who seek war because they usually have little personal stake in the price of war. In Perpetual Peace, Kant explained that an evolution to a world of democracies could lead to an end to war. The record of the so-called democratic peace theory shows some validity to the idea, as few wars have been fought between democracies over the past two centuries, although the same record shows a limited number of true democracies over this period.
So what do the Baha’i Writings say about the structure of the state and whether it has a role to play in peace. In Their Writings, Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi both mention the advantages of democratic and especially federal democratic forms of government, but also envision such a system as a possible basis for governing the entire world. 1 The Baha’i electoral system, with its own internal democratic structure, also suggest support for democratic means. However, little is written directly linking such systems at the national level to world peace.
The third image: The International System
The third image identifies the international system as the main cause of war. With no central power to create and enforce laws, Waltz argues that the system is inherently anarchic as each state has to rely on itself for survival and prosperity. In this situation, wars are inevitable as interests are bound to clash and interpretations of morality can often differ. While Kant believed that democratic states were rational and could only perform good acts, Waltz suggests that the nature of the system meant that force could, at times, be the rational choice when security and survival was threatened.
The main claim on the third image is supported in Baha’i literature, which envisions greater global governance, with a world legislature, executive and international force, as part of the means for achieving peace. However, the Baha’i Writings also incorporate concerns about how such a structure might encroach on individual freedoms and national sovereignty. This is addressed by Shoghi Effendi in The World Order of Baha’u’llah, when he states:
It does not ignore, nor does it attempt to suppress, the diversity of ethnical origins, of climate, of history, of language and tradition, of thought and habit, that differentiate the peoples and nations of the world. It calls for a wider loyalty, for a larger aspiration than any that has animated the human race. It insists upon the subordination of national impulses and interests to the imperative claims of a unified world. It repudiates excessive centralization on one hand, and disclaims all attempts at uniformity on the other. Its watchword is unity in diversity…
In conclusion, I believe that the Baha’i Writings provide evidence that all of the three images have a legitimate basis. However, the first image – that wars occur due to human nature and the third – the international system – have the strongest support. While the remedy to the third image is largely material, in that it requires changes in the international system, the first image is spiritual, requiring change to the self. These transitions correlate well to the Baha’i concepts of the lesser and most great peace. The lesser peace being a shift in the international system to one which would eliminate war between states, and the second being a shift in such a world order to a spiritual character amongst humankind.
Footnotes & Citations
Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah (Wilmette, Illinois, USA: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1991) p.202-206.[↩]
‘World peace is not only possible it is inevitable’: opening gambit of the pre-eminent statement to the peoples of the world penned by the one and only source of extant inerrant advice – the Universal House of Justice. As it’s nearly 30 years since ‘The Promise of World Peace’ (PWP) appeared and was distributed widely to virtually every leader in the world who can blame Baha’is for not recalling in detail its solutions or blame non-Baha’is in this dystopian decade nigh devoid of peace for dismissing its promise as irrelevantly utopian.
Our indefatigable editor, Naysan, has politely pointed out that I need to stay on theme and that digressions, while possibly interesting, can also be distracting. Fair enough, mate! Enough is enough! I’m not gonna reference my hobby-horse (Esperanto) ever again on this site as though it’s a universal panacea for what retards world peace and what causes a stasis in enrolments thanks to the 99.9% of Baha’is who avoid it. I mean, you’ll find no mention of Zamenhof or his international language of peace in PWP
My new catch-word: Esperanto? Is it an Italian or Spanish opera set in Utopia?
Paul Desailly (August 8, 2014 at 12:56 AM)
Paul Desailly calls the UHJ “the one and only source of extant inerrant advice,” but also highlights their lack of mention of Esperanto in PWP statement. Mate, my issues and visions, as were probably of thousands of other Baha’is, for a better world were neither get a mention in PUP. Rome was not built in one day. I humbly advise study of the history – from cave to digital miracle. I admire your gift in learning languages as your writings show – Lord be praised for this.
Hooshang Sadeghi-Afshar (August 8, 2014 at 11:49 PM)
Well-written article, pithy and concise. Thank you!
Elda DiLorenzo (August 8, 2014 at 2:56 PM)
It’s just my ambiguous style of penpersonship verging on the inflammatory that’s causing some concern among my co-religionists. ‘The devil’ one might say ‘is in the fine print of interpretation’ when it comes to understanding my meaning. It’s just an amateurish phase I’m going through. I constantly tell myself that everything will be OK in the morning if I stay calm and carry on – quietly from now on.
Paul Desailly (August 8, 2014 at 11:00 PM)
I think it is time for us all to bring once again to the attention of the greater community the statement of the Universal House of Justice on Peace. The application of the Statement is included in the goals of the 5 year plan. Simply put, the friends must take their role in realizing the divine plans a bit more seriously! Our example and educating the world around us about the divine physician remains the first remedy.
Keyvan Geula (August 8, 2014 at 3:32 PM)
I recently listened to a radio interview with Steven Pinker. He’s the Harvard psychologist whose books include The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Needless to say, Pinker argues that on the world stage, violence (read war) has declined, and he offers a wealth of statistical data to bolster his claim. He’s quick to point out that the news media is not interested in this no-story (there’s no war today in …, and there’s no war to day in …, and there’s …), and that the reason we’re under the impression that things are getting worse, much worse, is because of the media market. I’m tempted to believe Pinker, because I believe in Baha’u’llah. The promises Baha’u’llah enunciated and influence of His Revelation, which is now 170 years old, must account for something. Recognizing that humankind has made some progress with regards to the equality of men and women, a Baha’i principle, shouldn’t we also recognize the progress we have made, with aid of the spiritual forces released by His Word towards the actualization of other Baha’i principles such as peace?
Paul Vreeland (September 9, 2014 at 11:02 AM)