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.
Sam Karvonen is a ridiculously fortunate husband and a thoroughly blessed father. He is specialized in conflict-affected countries and inspired by the everyday heroism of their lay citizens. Oh, and a Baha'i of course.