October 1, 2020


For the last decade of the 19th and the first two of the 20th century, the community founded by Bahá’u’lláh (an Arabic title meaning “glory of God”) was guided by his son Abbás. Bahá’u’lláh referred to this eldest son and successor as “the Master”, a recognition of his exemplary character; meanwhile, Abbás refused this and many other honorary titles in favour of ’Abdu’l-Bahá (servant of glory, servant of Bahá’u’lláh). His astounding life, embracing both humble service and enlightened leadership, was featured on September 11, the 8th episode of the local “ Big Ideas ” series.

Paul Hanley, a writer and agriculture expert from Saskatoon, returned for a virtual presentation titled “’Abdu’l-Bahá: The Master of Social Action and Public Discourse.” How did this comparatively unknown figure – one who illuminates all of Bahá’í history and community development – exemplify Bahá’u’lláh’s call not just for reform but for global transformation? The Bahá’í approach to the renewal of society has three main elements: first, capacity-building at the grassroots; and where such development has progressed, undertaking societal improvement, plus contributing to ennobled conversation within those societies. The Bahá’í community has considered ‘Abdu’l-Bahá its Exemplar for nearly 130 years, and Hanley offered new insights into how his example continues to inspire.

Consider that the Master was “an incredibly prolific writer”, with over 30,000 letters of guidance and encouragement to friends from both East and West, as well as several books. After decades of exile and imprisonment, he gave hundreds of public talks explicating his father’s principles. Meanwhile, he so transformed minds and hearts in his final place of banishment – the Turkish empire’s penal colony in what is now Akká, Israel – that he went from being a pariah – plotted against and despised – to acclaim by Palestinian Arabs as “the Lord of Generosity”, another title he refused to use. In 1921, 10,000 mourners accompanied his casket to its resting place on the side of Mount Carmel. “Oh, by the way,” Hanley chuckled, “he also headed a world religion for 30 years!”

The heart of Hanley’s discussion was a little-known project in Adassiyah, a small village in Jordan. After the fall of the Turkish empire freed him, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá purchased nearly 1,000 hectares of parched, unpromising land. He envisioned a model agricultural community. Initial plantings of grain and barley – often raided by unfriendly neighbours – were supplemented not only by the cultivation of fruit trees and vegetables, but also measures to improve the conditions of the peasant farmers of the area. This pioneering example of “just, productive and sustainable rural development” resulted in Adassiyah becoming the Jordanian government’s “poster child” of agricultural progress.

Although this highly successful experiment ended with Jordan’s 1960s land reform, it continues to echo in history. First, in the darkness of the first World War, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá advised the farmers of Adassiyah to distribute their grain stores, thus avoiding widespread starvation. For this action, he was knighted by the British empire, which then controlled Palestine. “Sir ‘Abdu’l-Bahá Abbás” was another unused title.

Moreover, we still have over two billion farmers working half a billion farms, many based on industrial approaches to agriculture. The rise of “agro-ecology” principles and techniques – which mimic natural systems in creating sustainable forms of farming – echoes the approach of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá over a century ago. Many Bahá’í communities globally work to restore the biosphere and improve soil quality, to marry social and economic development as scrubland is transformed into viable farms and forests, and to “increase self-reliance through dignified and productive work” accompanied by education, moral development and genuine consultation.

The Big Ideas series are held regularly and hosted by the Ottawa Baha'i community at the Ottawa Baha'i Centre. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the sessions have moved online. Previous presentations have focused on different topics including human rights, international development and climate change.

This latest in the Big Ideas series showed listeners a new lens on Bahá’í history as well as global development. Paul Hanley’s books – The Spirit of Agriculture, or his recent Man of the Trees: First Global Conservationist – are another opportunity to benefit from the scholarship of this sustainability activist and thinker.

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