Baha’i Studies sessions look at influence of ‘Abdu’l-Baha and Baha’i teachings on society

October 15, 2021
Baha’i Studies sessions look at influence of ‘Abdu’l-Baha and Baha’i teachings on society

‘Abdu’l-Baha, son of the Founder of the Baha’i Faith, was a powerful contributor to a framework of Baha’i thought, even as He served as the “embodiment of every Baha’i ideal” and maintained the unity of the Baha’i community as its appointed leader for nearly three decades, said Paul Lample, member of the Universal House of Justice, the world governing council of the Baha’i Faith.   

Lample’s remarks on July 23, the opening day of the 2021 conference of the Association of Baha’i Studies-North America, outlined how ‘Abdu’l-Baha expressed Baha’i social principles such as the oneness of humanity, morality and ethics, the nature of the human soul, the power of speech, and human relationships imbued with justice, fairness and freedom from prejudice. 

The conference’s theme, “In the Footsteps of ‘Abdu’l-Baha,” pays tribute to the 100th anniversary of His passing in 1921. Click here for an overview of the conference.

Much as in 2020, this year’s nine-day conference was conducted through online video presentations. However, this year most programs were recorded and posted in advance, so that participants could view a lecture-style presentation at their convenience. Live discussions with the presenters were also scheduled. 

A few online discussions were unrecorded, including discussions of the methodologies of generating knowledge, inspired by the studies and thoughts of people in areas such as education, social science and economics.

Lample’s talk, “Reflections on the Challenge of Our Time,” touched on some central purposes of Baha’u’llah’s religious teachings: not just to enrich people’s spiritual lives one by one, but also to change relationships between individuals, communities and institutions. “The institutions of society move from where they are to become a framework of a new world order. Society moves from a material-driven society to one that becomes an ever-advancing spiritual civilization. And human beings are re-created to become a new human race,” he said. 

‘Abdu’l-Baha Himself is one of the greatest gifts from Baha’u’llah, as He provided clarification of the interplay between spiritual and social principles in the Baha’i teachings, Lample said. The world is used to contests for supremacy between people who have differing moral ideas, he said.  But in contrast, “‘Abdu’l-Baha’s power of thought helps us to transcend the existing moral framework in the world” and build unity in diversity through deeds as well as words. 

Focus on ‘Abdu’l-Baha

Given the focus of the conference, it was natural that many sessions centered on ‘Abdu’l-Baha and His influence on thought within the Baha’i community and beyond. Summaries of a few:

‘Abdu’l-Baha’s Charter for Sustainable Development. The Secret of Divine Civilization, written by ‘Abdu’l-Baha in the 19th century and published anonymously, offers insights toward a question that Nabil Leonard Khodadad posed in this presentation: “If we could build a new, healthy and sustainable civilization, what would it look like?” 

The book’s unique concept of development in society is based on the need to combine both the material and spiritual dimensions of civilization, the essential roles of global cooperation and freedom from prejudice, and the role of authentic religious teachings as the core of development. 

This book was offered as a contribution to a social and governmental reform movement in 19th-century Persia. But its ideas for transforming society, based on Baha’u’llah’s social and spiritual principles, range far wider than its own time and place — it “resonates even more today than it did when it was written a century and a half ago,” said Khodadad. He noted that the COVID-19 pandemic is one current-day phenomenon that creates an opportunity to reflect on how people, communities and institutions relate to each other. 

‘Abdu’l-Baha’s Discourse and Action on Agriculture Inspires Contemporary Food System Visions. Many Baha’is know about how ‘Abdu’l-Baha spearheaded a farming community at ‘Adasiyyah in present-day Jordan, ultimately helping prevent local starvation during World War I. 

Less known, said author Paul Hanley, is that He encouraged agricultural practices that are today considered regenerative: planting of a variety of crops, with a rotation that includes legumes and cover crops; construction of irrigation systems; use of livestock to diversify income and help with fertilization; and use of trees to reduce malarial swamps and cool the environment. He also helped modify the relationship between landholders and farmers “to give the villagers a larger share of the income,” and incorporated wider social and spiritual ideas such as a diverse local economy, a “strong focus on moral education” for children, and consultative decision making. 

The spirit of these approaches remains relevant, he noted, as more than a third of the world’s population makes a living — often at bare subsistence level — through farms, forests or fisheries. 

Modern echoes of this well-rounded approach emerged as Hugh Locke talked about the Smallholder Farmers Alliance in Haiti, which has supported small farmers in planting more than 8 million trees in an island country where forests have been virtually eliminated. The complex project, developed in constant consultation with local farmers, opens avenues for them to acquire high-quality seeds, tools and training; connects them with markets for their crops; facilitates their common efforts to acquire livestock; and produces materials to educate children on the environment and advancement of women. It is also helping the farmers restore a lost custom of mutual assistance at harvest time.

“Every action is based on community consultation, whether it’s deciding on who gets a microcredit loan, who gets the goats, which farmers are able to grow cotton, what seeds are requested in any given season, what tools are needed by the community,” Locke said.

Among other sessions that harked to ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s contribution to Baha’i development and public discourse:

‘Abdu’l-Baha and the Peace Movement
‘Abdu’l-Baha’s Prophecy — American Indian Ways of Thinking and Being as a Form of Holistic Illumination
‘Abdu’l-Baha’s Tablet to Dr. Forel

Reconsidering the Civil Rights Movement in the Footsteps of ‘Abdu’l-Baha
Learning from ‘Abdu’l-Baha in a Society Characterized by Ageism
‘Abdu’l-Baha as Architect of the World Order of Baha’u’llah
Remembering the Master: Two New Books
Encouraging the Arts During the Ministry of ‘Abdu’l-Baha: the Services of Master Calligrapher Mishkin-Qalam

Constructive resilience

Many of the above topics perpetuate a theme carried over from past ABS conferences — how Baha’i teachings can nurture constructive resilience in the face of oppressive social currents. Among the additional presentations that underscored this topic:

The Capacity to Build, Resist, Define and Redefine: Research and Lived Experience Among BIHE Students. In the decades since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, the government’s systematic denial of educational opportunity has been part of a plan to annihilate the nation’s Baha’i community. The Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE) was devised at the grass roots to help young Iranian Baha’is get university-level education. 

For much of its history, BIHE operated essentially underground in the homes of Baha’is, which were subject to periodic police raids and confiscations of supplies and equipment. Even as more classes were conducted online, students have faced the stress of learning in isolation — in addition to uncertainty whether they might be arrested and jailed at any time. 

“Stories like this were not uncommon,” said graduate student Kimiya Tahirih Missaghi. She has interviewed BIHE alumni who have since moved to North America, and her analysis of their responses reveals a distinctive quality of resilience that goes beyond merely adapting or “bouncing back” in an adverse situation. 

As co-presenter Shakib Nasrullah confirmed, that resilience extended to the desire to benefit society, with help from community support and fed by a deep conviction, founded in the Baha’i teachings, of the vital importance of education and the sciences. Other relevant spiritual values included “nonviolence, detachment … they didn’t develop hate against their oppressor,” Nasrullah said. 

Red Summer of 1919 and the American Baha’i Community’s Response to Racial Injustice. Jian Khadem Khodadad, a corporate strategy executive, recounted how, in response to America’s deadly postwar wave of anti-Black lynchings, riots and other violence, ‘Abdu’l-Baha mandated that the Baha’i community make efforts to build social unity. In 1921, one important thread of that effort was to co-organize a series of conventions for interrracial amity, in collaboration with African-American leaders and like-minded thinkers. Khadem Khodadad said this was just one part of an unfolding “Most Great Reconstruction,” a term that prominent U.S. Baha’i Louis G. Gregory later used to envision how the Faith’s teachings can restructure society. 

The first four conventions, 1921–1924 in several East Coast cities — arranged with the aid of such organizations as the NAACP, the Urban League and the League of Women Voters — were particularly effective in promoting the oneness of humanity among religious and political leaders, Khadem Khodadad said. (Click here for an overview of the beginnings of the movement.) Their emphasis on spiritual unity rather than any particular political agenda attracted thousands, including many civic officials and respected Black thinkers. 

“By standing at the vanguard of discourse and forging bonds with communities at the center of Black thought, ‘Abdu’l-Baha and the American Baha’i community were engaged in a revolutionary type of social action, refusing to shy away from the most contentious issues of the day,” said Khodadad. “It’s a legacy we all now inherit and we must seize, with the audacity that ‘Abdu’l-Baha urged [in] our spiritual forebears.” 

Toward a Protagonist-Centered Black History. Otha Malik Nash spoke of framing the history of the African diaspora in a way that “sees Black people through their own eyes,” rather than defining this population by the conventional Western civilization and economic assumptions — often as passive victims or beneficiaries of paternalism. 

Nash, who is researching knowledge systems that originate with Sudanic peoples, proposed a “protagonist-centered” approach that recognizes legacies in continuing communal development as well as in African roots, placing Black people “in the center of their own stories … as a whole self.” 

Even during the bitterest oppression in the Americas, he said, African-American communities  cultivated “initiatives that minister to body, mind and soul alike, to form mutual aid societies, formal and informal tutoring, … collective effort and pooling of material resources … a ferocious commitment to education under even the most dire circumstances.” 

These efforts reflect a quality that has come to be known within the Baha’i community as “constructive resilience,” he said. A protagonist-centered approach to Black history can “shed great light on the distinctive character and meaning” of the Baha’i community-building process as it unfolds on this continent — fortifying a spirit of generosity, relationship building, and willingness to work for the good of the whole that can be found at the core of Baha’i activity. 

A Lakota Baha’i Approach to Applying Critical Pedagogy in the Classroom. Jelena Bighorn shared glimpses of her process of learning about creating classroom environments that encourage students to analyze and rise above oppressive thinking and social patterns. Her process incorporates a traditional Indigenous view of human nature in harmony with principles from the Ruhi Institute, the worldwide Baha’i program for training in spiritual service, alongside other scholarship.

In her high school classrooms in Vancouver, BC, Bighorn has utilized her understanding of the “medicine wheel” of the Lakota tradition, in which she was raised, to illustrate how all people are ultimately related and varied human cultures each lend unique strengths to the whole. Keeping this relatedness in mind, she said, she strives to regard all students of every background as nieces and nephews for whom she must do her best.  

These principles find reinforcement from the Baha’i teachings of unity in diversity she was brought up with, as well as attitudes toward knowledge encouraged in Ruhi materials. Even something as simple as sitting in a circle on the same level as students, a common practice for tutors in study circles, helps every student realize “that there is a place for them, and that all knowledge is sacred.” It also increases trust as it dissolves a teacher-student power structure that many take for granted.

Teachers and students together discuss principles from such scholars as bell hooks or Paulo Friere. Sometimes they develop courage to ask questions they had been made to feel were “forbidden,” she said — for instance, why their schooling is centered so much on rote learning. “Students are eager to participate,” she said.  

These and other elements help to structure “dynamic spaces of consultation and dialogue” where students form relationships of respect, encourage each other to learn in action, then later reflect together on the results of those actions, and “go out and try again.” 

Film as a Tool for Public Discourse: Race and Gender. The narratives in popular and artistic films often reinforce harmful biases in society. But this powerful form of storytelling can also convey messages that ennoble humanity, weaken prejudices, and strengthen unity, say Tara Jabari, Anne Gordon Perry, Derik Smith and Christina Wright, who have conducted a course on this theme for the Wilmette Institute

They touched on how certain racial and cultural groups, women of all backgrounds — and relationships and power dynamics between them — have been represented and portrayed on screen over the years. 

“Film has the capacity to be an effective tool for engagement in the discourses around race and gender, and the narratives we’re being offered — both positive and problematic,” Wright said. But audiences, she noted, often ignore or take for granted the narratives that lead to people’s degradation — potentially giving those narratives great influence over our inner lives. 

“In the spirit of independent investigation of truth, it’s necessary for us to approach our movie watching with a critical eye,” she said, “so that we can unpack what messages are being delivered, rather than just taking movies in as pure entertainment.” 

Additional presentations on moral resistance to discrimination and oppression included: 

Power to the Pupil: Towards a New Black Liberation Theology Within the Framework of the Baha’i Faith
Combating Corruption and Promoting Integrity in Global Water Governance
Encouragement, Challenges, Healing and Progress: The Baha’i Faith in Indigenous Communities
The Biology of Oneness: Achieving Health Equity Above the Skin and Below the Skin
Neurodiversity: A Key to Growth in the Faith
Reflections on Advancing Racial Justice Through Education
Understanding Interracial Unity in the American University
A Rich Tapestry
Glimpses into the Spirit of Gender Equality — Film Screening and Discussion
Paving the Path Toward Social Justice: Advancing the Discourse on Anti-racism in Medicine
We Are All One: The Role of Asians in Eradicating Anti-Blackness
Honouring the Children: Social Action for Truth, Reconciliation and Justice

Spirituality and society

Many sessions looked at the interaction of society with the spiritual nature of humanity:

The Harmony of Science and Religion: Bias, Diversity and the Brain. Human brains all conduct higher-level and lower-level thinking, said Dan Radecki, neuroscientist and researcher. The trick is to bring both types of thinking into harmony, so we can build relationships and contribute to peace in wider society. 

“Biases get a bad name, but from a neuroscience perspective, all they are are mental shortcuts,” he said. Such shortcuts save time and energy in routine everyday life, not just in matters of survival and threat. 

But trouble comes when the “lower brain,” seated in the amygdala, sees an “outsider” and reacts with hostility — and the “higher brain,” seated in the prefrontal cortex, isn’t applying “brakes” on that emotion, possibly due to stress. How, then, can people develop their higher brains to build resilience, creativity, empathy, and rewire their biases? 

The Baha’i teachings prescribe some effective strategies for disrupting lower-brain impulses and increasing mindfulness, such as fasting, prayer and meditation, and putting oneself in the loving company of diverse people. “If you can welcome and embrace diversity, you can change your brain,” Radecki said, and genuine appreciation of a diverse world paves the way for building community.  

A Ladder to the Soul: Developing Artistic Frameworks. Organizers and participants in FRMWRK described their experiences with this mechanism for long-distance musical, poetic, video and visual arts collaboration. It aims to develop a social infrastructure that helps artists to “feel supported and [to] create the culture that we feel we need to feel valued,” said Emiliano Morondos, a co-organizer along with Oak Ritchie and Benn Good (Benny Cassette). 

The project has brought interested young people from across the continent together to study Baha’i guidance on the oneness of humanity and eradicating racism, then to team up and consultatively create recorded works and online programs — some of which have gained award nominations and other recognition. 

As participants form networks in the conversation spaces that FRMWRK provides, Good said, they share their experiences in personal and community activities such as organizing devotional gatherings, teaching children’s classes, and helping with activities to benefit the hungry and homeless. “People get inspired by that, people ask how you did it, people start to do it in their own communities,” he said. Mentoring relationships are formed from there, in both artistic and human service activity. 

Ritchie added that an important principle in the process of creation “is to let go of one’s ego … let go of some of the … ambitious tones and qualities and really embrace the idea of mutualism and collaboration.” (Click here for another glimpse of what FRMWRK does.)

Other sessions dealing with spirituality in society included:

Ideas, Religion and Social Change: The Baha’i International Community and the United Nations
Wings of Knowledge: Empowering Youth to Improve Their Rural Communities
Combating Corruption and Promoting Integrity in Global Water Governance
Knowledge Generation and Policy: Baha’i Perspectives and Emerging Knowledge Communities in China
A New Balance and New Direction: Reflecting on the U.S. Bahá’í Office of Public Affairs Advancing Together Symposium
Convergence: Cities, Spirituality and the Future of Civilization
‘Adasiyyah: A Study in Agriculture and Rural Development
Horizons and Mirages: What Lies in the Future of American Journalism?
Using Systems Science to Support a Learning Mode in Teams
Toward a New Research Program: An Interview with the Directors of the Center on Modernity in Transition
Fashion and Spirituality: An Examination of our Relationship to Clothing Beyond Consumption
Engaging Stakeholders in Research Endeavours: Process and Impact

Other topics 

Several sessions dealt with the implications of Baha’i thought for specific fields of study, or the study of Baha’i writings themselves:

The Rashh-i-‘Ama in Living Color. The first known written work in which Baha’u’llah proclaims a new Day of God and His divine revelation is the short, complex Persian poem “Rashh-i-‘Ama (The Clouds of the Realms Above).” Karen Anne Webb explored some of the context and meanings within that 1852 work, whose authorized English translation was published in 2019. 

The beauty and multilayered symbolism of the original defies exact translation, she acknowledged — such as the depth of meaning even within the word ‘Ama, or “cloud,” in Islamic mysticism and prophetic imagery, as well as cultural and mystical references that would be familiar to 19th-century Persians with a religious education. 

Her examination of each couplet of the English text touched on further symbols in Baha’u’llah’s announcement of the “raining down” of many blessings and wonders from God. It was followed by color-coded text showing the types of images used throughout the poem, including music, water, the human body, the senses, precious treasures, the heavens, and other symbols. The last few couplets, she noted, include strong exhortations “to whoever is reading the poem to … use all your senses to embrace what He is saying.” 

Additional presentations:

Evolution, Design, and Faith
Science and Religion in Dynamic Interplay
Applications from Higher Education Research to Bahá’í Practice: Deepening, Action, and Reflection
Research Report: The Effects of Baha’i Prayers on the Moods of Undergraduate University Students

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