'Abdu'l-Baha's Resaleh-ye Madaniyyeh


Sen McGlinn
by Sen McGlinn

I’ve been working
on an encyclopaedia article on Abdu’l-Baha’s “Secret of Divine
Civilization”. I’m putting the article up here for a while for
comments. Naturally the published version will have proper
transliterations, which are missing here

RESALA-YE MADANIYA, a treatise of some 130 pages by `Abd-al-Bahaa
(q.v.), internally dated in 1292/1875 (`Abd-al-Bahaa, 1984, p. 72;
1957, p. 62), which calls on the Iranian people to ‘awake’ and take the
steps necessary to modernize the country. The treatise is written in
prose of high literary quality, making extensive use of alliteration,
rhyme, rhythm, parallelism, and literary figures, yet it reads quite
easily. A mirror for princes’ story of the moral education of King
No`maan III (r. ca. 580-602; Hitti, 1963 p. 84) through the virtue of a
Christian divides the text into two parts(`Abd-al-Bahaa, 1984, pp.
55-61); 1957 pp 46-51).

The text was lithographed by a Bahai Press in Bombay in 1299/1882
(described in Tumanski et.al 1891 pp 253-255) and bound in one volume
with Bahaa-Allaah’s Lowh-e Maanekja-saaheb (composed in 1878). The
latter is written in ‘pure’ Persian without the use of Arabic loan
words. Viktor Rosen reproduces the frontispiece of this edition and
attributes the authorship of the whole text to Bahaa-Allaah (Rosen et
al., 1891 p. 253), who ordered its publication. This edition has not
been consulted. A second printing in 1310/1992 has a different
frontispiece and is bound without the Lowh-e Maanekja-saaheb. The copy
of this to which Browne refers (1889 p. 944) is now in the Cambridge
University library (Moh. 436.d.6) and has been consulted. The
widely-used Baha’i-Verlag edition of 1984 is a reproduction of the
typeset Cairo 1911 edition, with some diacritics added. Since the
original Cairo edition is rare, and the copy consulted was missing
several pages, the references in this article are to the 1984 edition,
followed by the corresponding page number in Gale’s translation. The
1911 Cairo edition and the 1984 edition include a short appendix (p.
139) by `Abd-al-Bahaa on the Mamluk Sultan al-ashraf Salah ad-din
khalil ibn Qalawun, who is mentioned in the text as “Saladin, the
victorious Ayyubi King [who] completely expelled the kings and armies
of Europe from the lands and coastal plain of Egypt and Syria” (1984 p.
108; mistranslated by Gail and Dawud).

Initially the book was distributed without the author’s name. The
Bombay editions bear the Arabic title Asraar al-geybiya le asbaab
al-madaniya, hence the title of the most widely-used English
translation The Secret of Divine Civilization by Marzieh Gail,
published in 1957.

The first English translation of 1910 by Johanna Dawud is entitled
The Mysterious Forces of Civilization. This translation is poor, with
some of Dawud’s own enlargements about conditions in Persia being
incorporated into the text (eg. pp 35 and 38-9). The typesetting
appears not to have been corrected. For example, it reads ‘heads’ and
‘applications’ where the translator must surely have written ‘hands’
and ‘supplications’ (pages 6-7). The 1918 edition of this translation
corrects incidental mistakes, but apparently without reference to the
original. Sections were translated by Shoghi Effendi (1928, pp 49-50
and revised in 1938, pp. 37-38; 1928 pp. 52-53), who first used the
title The Secret of Divine Civilization. Gail has adopted the first
section translated by Shoghi Effendi, but not the second. She has also
relied on Dawud’s translation, since she sometimes repeats his mistakes
with Arabic and Islamic vocabulary. For example, baaliyye dar qabuur is
translated as “the decayed bones in the sepulcher” by Dawud and “the
mouldering bones in the graveyard” by Gail(1984, p. 29; 1910, p. 51;
1957, p. 53): it should read ‘the torments of the grave.’ Gail appears
not to have been familiar with the reforms of Hosayn Khan, discussed
below, with the result that specific allusions to them are lost. For
example, majaalis-e mamaalik-e mahruusah, is translated by Gail
“consultative assemblies in foreign states” (1984, p. 10; 1957, p. 24),
whereas the reference is to the provincial councils that then existed
in Iran. In general, Gail universalises `Abd-al-Bahaa’s thought, and
casts it as hopes for the future rather than specific commentary on the
Iran of 1875. A new translation is forthcoming in the Iranian Studies
Series (Rozenburg Publishers, Amsterdam).

At the time the treatise was written, reform from above appeared to
be possible in Persia, particularly through the work of Mirzaa Hosayn
Khan (1827-1881). Many themes in the treatise show support for Mirzaa
Hosayn Khan’s administrative and broader social reforms. The story of
King No`maan III may be intended as a historical parallel, in which
that king’s two mourned victims correspond to Amiir Kabir (executed
1852) and the virtuous Christian corresponds to Hosayn Khan, in whom
Nasir ed-Diin had once again found a trustworthy and progressive
advisor. However, the book is intended not as an appeal to the court
alone, but for a wide audience, and `Abd-al-Bahaa, like his father,
looked mainly for organic reform from below, through the mobilization
of the masses and a moral and religious revival which would create the
social conditions to sustain the reforms. There is a strong emphasis on
the need for energy, effort, resolve, and confidence that the Iranian
people can make Iran a role model for the civilized world
(`Abd-al-Bahaa, 1984 p. 6; 1957, pp. 4-5).

`Abd-al-Bahaa advocates a range of governmental and social reforms
which could be broadly called ‘Western,’ but he is also sharply
critical of some aspects of Western civilization. He endorses borrowing
ideas from other countries (Idem, 1984 p. 17-21; 1957, pp. 25-32) and
refers to European models and the Meiji restoration in Japan (Idem,
1984 p. 131; 1957 p. 111). Yet he bases his own argument primarily on
the values of reason, wisdom, mind, intellect, and the innate capacity
for building civilization, which the Persians had demonstrated in the
past. This could be characterized as a primarily indigenous, yet
global-minded, approach to institutional reforms within the framework
of a broader social development to be based on individual moral
development and persevering effort, which in turn would be sustained by
mass education and a revival of true religion.

As Momen has commented (pp. 23-24), `Abd-al-Bahaas genuine reliance
on religion to provide the social bases for development contrasts with
some other prominent figures of the reform movement, who used Islam
cynically as a means of getting reforms adopted. In the Resaala-ye
madaniya ‘reformers,’ who in fact line their own pockets, are
criticized. The members of the consultative bodies must be virtuous,
but the people also need to know what justice is, if they are to pursue
it and obtain it (`Abd-al-Bahaa, 1911 , pp. 19-29). `Abd-al-Bahaas
emphasis on education is similar to the position taken by Mohammad
`Abduh (1849-1905), his concern for legal reform and a codified law
(Idem, p. 46) resembles that in Mirzaa Yusof Khan Mostashaar-al-Dowla’s
(d. 1888) Yek Kalema, and his recognition of the harmful effects of
religious zealotry (illustrated in part by the mirror for kings episode
mentioned above) is reminiscent of Akhundzaada (q.v.). The repeated
references to technical innovations perhaps look back to the reforms of
Amir Kabir. Rather than lambasting the conservative ulema,
`Abd-al-Bahaa presents an optimistic picture of the contribution that
progressive ulema could make, if they were to concern themselves with
the needs of the nation (Idem, pp. 40-46). Relatively innovative
elements, beyond the scope of Mirzaa Hosayn Khan’s reforms, include the
need for a system of global collective security based on law and backed
by force (Idem, pp. 76-77) and the suggestion that public officials
should be chosen in periodic elections, rather than being appointed by
the shah, so as to give the public a supervisory role and inhibit

The primary influence is clearly `Abd-al-Bahaa’s father,
Bahaa-Allaah, who had already published many of these views, and who
had asked `Abd-al-Bahaa to write a work on the causes of development
and underdevelopment (Fayzi, 1971, p. 38). Momen has demonstrated (pp.
49-52) that the Bahai leaders in the 1860s and 1870s had extensive
contacts with the most prominent reformers in the Muslim world during
this period and were part of the reform debate. It is likely that
`Abd-al-Bahaa had read the works by Tahtawi and Mostashaar-al-Dowla
mentioned in the bibliography. A more distant echo of the medieval
Persianate political ethic (Arjomand, pp. 3-28) can be detected,
particularly in the formulation of the relationship between religion
and politics.

This was the second Persian reformist treatise to be printed and
distributed in Persia, after Mirzaa Yusof Khan’s Yek Kalema. E. G.
Browne (p. 944) has noted its wide dissemination. As Momen has
explained (pp. 48-49), the paucity of references to it, on the part of
Persian intellectuals of the period and since, may reflect their
unwillingness to be associated with the Bahais (see also Cole, 1992. p.
13). The few recent acknowledgements of its existence in recent Iranian
scholarship have come from writers who are unaware of its authorship.
Adamiyat and Naateq (pp. 114-17), for example, refer to the Resaala-ye
madaniya as an untitled and anonymous work, citing what appears to be a
manuscript copy made from the Bombay edition, since their last
quotation from this manuscript (p. 117) is from Bahaa-Allaah’s Lowh-e
Maanekja-saaheb (Bahaa-Allaah and `Abd-al-Bahaa, pp. 21-22). Momen (pp.
52-60) gives a detailed summary of the contents and an evaluation. This
understates the close parallels between `Abd-al-Bahaas themes and
Hosayn Khan’s actual reforms, and his forthright endorsement of them,
notably in the summaries on pp. 118-120 and 136 (cf. Nashat, pp. 44-47,
50, 84-5, 100-102, 104, 110, 118, 122, 125, 127.). Saiedi (1993) has
provided the only full-length study of the Resaala-ye madaniya, which
treats it, within the framework of Bahai theology, as a source of still
usable insights into the sociology and theory of development, for
Persia and the world. He also positions the work in the various
disputes leading up to the Constitutional Revolution (q.v.), while Cole
(pp. 81-89) situates it in relation to other reformist currents in the
Middle East.


`Abd-al-Bahaa, Jild al’awwal min Asraar al-geybiya le asbaab al-madaniya, Bombay, 1310, reprinted as below.
Idem, Resaala-ye madaniya, Kurdistan `Ilmiyyat printers, Cairo 1329
/1911; reprinted Baha’i-Verlag, Hofheim-Langenheim, Germany, 1984.
Idem, The Mysterious Forces of Civilization, tr. J. Dawud, London,
1910; second edition Chicago, 1918, e-text of the latter H-Bahai, 2007.
Idem, The Secret of Divine Civilization, tr. M. Gail, Wilmette, Ill.,
1957Al-Risalat al-Madaniyyat, tr. B. Kuylyk (Gulick), Baha’i Publishing
Trust, Rio de Janiro, Brazil, 1986 (with a Foreword by S. Bushru’i).
Fereydun Adamiyat and Homaa Naateq, Afkaar-e ejtemaa`i wa siyaasi wa
eqtesaadi dar aat˚aar-e montashernashoda-ye dowraan-e qaajaar, Tehran,
1356 ∏./1977.
Said Amir Arjomand, “Medieval Persianate Political Ethic,” in Studies
on Persianate Societies 1, ed. SA Arjomand, 2003, pp. 3-28.
Bahaa-Allaah, Majmu`a-yi az alwaah-e jamaal-e aqdas-e abhaa ke ba`d az
Ketaab-e Aqdas naazel shoda, Hofheim-Langenheim, 1980; see especially
the Lowh-e donyaa. Bahaa-Allaah and `Abd-al-Bahaa, Yaaraan-e paarsi,
Hofheim, Germany, 1998. E. G. Browne, “The Babis of Persia,” JRAS 21,
1889, pp. 953-72. Juan Cole, “Iranian Millenarianism and Democratic
Thought in the Nineteenth Century Middle East,” IJMES 24, February
1992, pp. 1-26. Idem, Modernity and the Millennium, New York, 1998.
Fayzi, Muhammad ‘Ali, Hayat-e Hadrat-e `Abd-al-Bahaa. Tehran: Baha’i
Publishing Trust, 128 BE [1971]. Moojan Momen, “The Baha’i Influence on
the Reform Movements of the Islamic World in the 1860s and 1870s”
Baha’i Studies Bulletin II/2, September 1983 (pp 47-65); available at
//www.northill.demon.co.uk/relstud/RefMov.htm accessed on 22
October 2008. Guity Nashat, The Origins of Modern Reform in Iran,
1870-1880, Urbana, Ill., 1982. al-Refaa`a Rafi` Tahtawi, Manaahij
al-albaab al-mesriya fi mabaahij al-aadaab al-`asriya, Cairo,
1330/1912. V. Rosen, et al., Les Manuscrits Arabes de L’institut de
Langues Orientales, vol. VI/2, St. Petersburg, 1891. Nadir Saiedi,
Resaala-ye madaniya: masaaleh wa tajaddod dar Kaar-e Miaana, Dundas,
Canada, 1993. Shoghi Effendi, ‘Excerpts from Baha’i Sacred Writings’ in
The Baha’i World, A Biennial International Record, vol. 2, April
1926-1928, New York, 1928. Idem, The World Order of Bahaa-Allaah,
Wilmette, Illinois, 1938. Mirzaa Yusof Khan Mostashaar-al-Dowla
Tabrizi, Yek Kalema, manuscript copy in the author’s collection
(written in 1870). Hitti, Philip K., History of the Arabs, 8th edition

(Sen McGlinn)


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Questions and comment....

by alborz on

... regarding your objectives and how you intend to fulfill them. 

Q1 - What is the objective of this article? Is it to inform the reader of the content of the book or the various editions and translations and the people involved?

Q2 - What type of comments do you expect to get on this article by posting it on iranian.com?

Q3 - What evidence do you have to support your approach and meeting your objectives?

While the topics contained in this book are of relevance to current events, thinking and the readership on iranian.com; the approach in which they are presented here, needs to be reconsidered.

Having read this book, I recommend more focus and emphasis on its content and less on the various editions.  This would certainly be more appropriate here on Iranian.com and perhaps also in the encyclopedia.

Thank you for providing an opportunity to comment.