Episode 7: Governance with Integrity (Part One)

We interview Dr. Moojan Momen to explore how the Persian Baha'is at the turn of the 20th century engaged in society building, drawing particularly on two key books by Abdul-Baha, to help bring about Iran's first democratic institutions. Part One provides the historical background and context to this remarkable story.

Society builders pave the way to
a better world, to a better day.

A united approach to building a new society.

Join the conversation, for social
Transformation. Society Builders.

Society Builders with
your host, Duane Varan.

Welcome to Society Builders and thank
you for joining the conversation

for Social transformation.

Our last episode marks something
of a transition in our narrative.

To date, our first five episodes of
the Society Building Series really

explored the roles of the Plans and
providing us with our sense of vision

for the new society building road ahead.

But our last episode was the first in a
sequence of episodes that will now look

back at our history of society building.


in our last episode, we explored the
impact, which Abdul-Baha, and the

generation He inspired, had on really
all modern social discourse even today.

Again, key constructs across discourses
on race, the empowerment of women,

world peace, the environment,

governance and so much more all
traced their roots back to key

contributions of the early Baha'i community.

To some extent, this was because
they were there at the crossroads,

at the genesis of the emergence of
many of these nascent movements.

We're talking about things like
affirmative action, black pride,

nonviolent approaches to civil rights,
the Parents Teachers association

tree, planting the global discourse
on the environment, and so much more.

I mean, it's truly remarkable
to see just how impactful and

enduring their influence was.

And in our last episode, we heard
short snippets from some of the

world's leading Baha'i scholars
commenting on these themes.

But these short clips reflected just
a few minutes of audio extracted from

what were hours of recorded interviews.

So there was so much detail that
I couldn't include in an overview

episode, but which I know that you
would've found profoundly valuable.

Clearly, there was so much more to tell.

So I realized that we'd need a
few episodes to help with each of

the different themes we explored.

And we start this new sequence today
with the discussion about how

Abdul-Baha, and the generation He inspired,
contributed to the discourse on governance

with integrity, particularly in the
context of political reform in Iran.

As you'll discover, this played a
critical role in the emergence of

Iran's first democratic institutions.

But the implications here are much
broader than this Persian discourse

because when you think about it, the
whole idea of governance with integrity

speaks directly to what is most broken
about the political systems of our day.

More than anything, we crave the
idea of governance with integrity.

It's what's most lacking
in governance today.

So today we're gonna explore Abdul-Baha's
interaction with this discourse

on governance, particularly this
focus on governance with integrity.

Now, because today's theme
is so extensive, we're gonna

explore it across two episodes.

Today's episode,

part one of our series, we'll explore
the background and context associated

with the need for reforming Iran
and the council, which Abdul-Baha provided

primarily across two books that He
wrote that address these themes.

And in our next episode, we'll then explore
how the Baha'i community of the day

responded and shared this council with
wider society, how they approached society

building in their time, and the impact this
ultimately had on wider Persian society.

So it's an exciting adventure.

Today we're joined by

Dr. Moojan Momen, who is truly the
authority on the history of the

early Iranian Baha'i community.

He's author to numerous books, chapters
and articles on the early Iranian

Baha'i community, and he's also one of
the seminal scholars on Shia Islam.

He's a fellow of the Royal Asiatic
Society of Great Britain in Ireland, and

he's the recipient of numerous awards
in recognition of his scholarship.

So we're incredibly fortunate to have

Dr. Moojan Momen as our special
guest today. Moojan jon,

welcome to Society Builders.

Momen: Oh, well, thank you very
much for inviting me.

It's a great pleasure.

A somewhat over effusive
introduction to me, but there we go.

I am very pleased to be here.

Thank you for inviting me
to Society Builders and I

hope we can learn a little bit
about Abdul-Baha's contributions

in this area of, of governance.

Thank you.

So Moojan.

Today we're going to talk a lot about
Abdul-Baha and his interaction with

efforts to reform governance in Iran.

But before we do, we probably need a
little bit of background and context.

So let's start talking about
Abdul-Baha and His interaction

with the leaders of His day.

As I understand it, this begins at a very
young age for Abdul-Baha, even from His

time in and Adrianople where He began
playing something of a Secretary of State

role for the nascent Baha'i community,
facilitating His father's interaction

with the governing leaders of His day.

Help paint the picture.

Momen: Okay.

Well, prior to this time when they were
in Adirne,otherwise known as Adrianople, so

in other words, in the time that they
were in Baghdad, Baha'u'llah had freely mixed

with the population in, in Baghdad.

He would go to the cafes and
talk to people and try to

teach the Faith there and

the person had been taking care of the
day-to-day business of the household,

dealing with supplies, dealing with
minor officials, uh, had been Baha'ullah's

brother Mosa because Abdul-Baha was
very young at that time, by the time

they got to Adirne, and during the time
that they were there, Baha'u'llah no longer

freely mixed with the population.

But He did still meet with governors and
other local officials from time to time

if they requested an interview.

But increasingly in that time in Adrianople,
it was Abdul-Baha who took over

the care of the day-to-day business, of
the household, dealing with supplies,

dealing with minor officials and so forth.

And how old was Abdul-Baha, when
he was in Adrianople taking on this role?

Momen: Well, at the time when they first
arrived in Edirne this, this was in

right at the end of 1863, Abdul-
Baha would've been just 19 years old.

He was still very young.

He was still a teenager
when they first arrived.

And then finally, when they got
to Acca, when the exiles were

finally exiled to Acca, Baha'u'llah no longer
met either with the population in

general or even with any officials.

And so Abdul-Baha took over all of
the interactions of the community

with the outside world, including
even governors and officials.

So He was dealing with, but both the
sort of the governor at the sort of

higher level of the interactions with
the local officials, but also with

minor officials, day-to-day
business, organizing supplies for the

household, all of these sorts of things.

He was the person who
was in charge of all of that.

And then as the years rolled
by, after the passing of

Baha'u'llah, when Abdul-Baha became the leader
of the Baha'i community in the Acca area,

as far as the outside world was concerned,
as far as the officials and so on was

were concerned, nothing much had changed
because they'd been dealing with

Abdul-Baha before and they were continuing
to deal with Abdul-Baha afterwards.


always tried to get on
well with local officials

and governors and so on.

He always tried to play a

positive role in the community,
making constructive suggestions.

Some of the governors were hostile
to the Baha'is and, and tried to cause

problems for them because of religious
and other reasons, but those governors

who were willing to listen to Abdul-
Baha and, and take His advice, found

that it was very helpful and it was
always constructive and always helped

them with what they were doing.

So we can see from our discussion
thus far that Abdul-Baha was

highly engaged in interacting
with the civic leaders of his day.

But this begins taking a new focus
really around a very specific discourse.

And here, of course, I'm referring to the
discourse on political reform in Iran.

Now before we can discuss this, we
need to first understand why there was

a need for reform in the first place.

So here again, we need a little
bit of background and context.

Moojan jan, can you please help
understand why there was this

need for reform at the time?

Momen: Okay, so we're talking about
Iran in the last half of the

19th century, and Iran wasn't

alone in this. Many countries had
the same problem that they were

trying to catch up with modernity.

They still had basically in
place, a medieval, feudal

social and political structure.

So it was like the king owned the country.

He had absolute authority to do
whatever he wanted in the country.

And obviously he raised

taxes by decree, but there were more
questionable practices going on that

were sort of conducive to corruption.

So for example, he would sell
governorships and ministerial

positions to individuals.

And so therefore, it was not the most
capable person who would get the job,

but the person who could raise the money
to buy the position. And that person

would then try to recoup the money
he had spent and also make a profit.

And so, they would then sort of tax
the people under them and they would

sell positions to people in the
area they were governing and so on.

So the whole system became very rundown
and corrupt, simply because it was not

based on ability, it was based on money.

And so people who were not capable
were in charge of ministerial positions

and local governors and so on.

And not surprisingly, they didn't do a
very good job of governing. So there there

was a, a great deal of, of corruption
and just poor governing, and the Shah was

constantly trying to raise money to cover
his increasingly extravagant lifestyle.

Now, of course we know that
Baha'u'llah Himself was very active in

engaging with this discourse, you know,
seeking change here, particularly in

His famous tablet to the Persian King
and and to other tablets as well.

But I guess the king in the royal court
really didn't heed His advice very much.

Momen: Yes, Baha'u'llah, starting from the
1860s onwards, started to address

the kings and leaders of the world.

And He would give them advice on the
subject of governance and, and the way

they should organize their society, their
country, that they were rulers over.

So, for example, in His

tablet to Queen Victoria,

He strongly commended Queen Victoria
and the British government in the

moves they had taken towards democracy.

And in His writings, He recommended
that a confluence of world leaders

should be convened and that would fix
the boundaries of every country, and

then guarantee these boundaries by a
treaty, creating a Pact of collective

security whereby all the countries would

collectively guarantee the
borders of each country.

Then if they managed to do this, He said
this would lead to a reduction in the need

for armaments, and the benefits of that
could then be passed on in the form of

expenditure on education, infrastructure
and other benefits to the country.

So Baha'u'llah Himself was giving a great
deal of advice to, to the kings and

rulers about how to organize society.

So the king rejected Baha'u'llah's Message
ultimately, and, and this is where

Abdul-Baha enters into the picture.

Now, most of the Writings we have of Abdul-
Baha, of course, are either compilations

of his Tablets to believers or they're
compilations of talks He gave, or

transcripts of interviews He gave.

But Abdul-Baha actually wrote three books,

the 'Secret of Divine Civilization',
you know, the 'Traveler's Narrative'

and His 'Treatise on Politics'.

All three of these books
discuss this governance theme.

I mean, even 'Traveler's Narrative', which
is, you know, primarily historical,

even that concludes with
this focus on governance.

So let's start with the first of these.

Of course, the 'Secret
of Divine Civilization',

a book most Baha'is are
already well-acquainted with.

Why did Abdul-Baha write this book?

How did it engage with the
discourse of governance in Iran?

Momen: Yes, this book was written
in 1875, so Abdul-Baha would've been

31 at that time, and He wrote this
treaties addressed to the people

of Iran in general, but especially
those who were interested in

and engaged with the question
of governance in Iran, and

the question of reform of, of the
governance of Iran. And to understand

the context for this at that
time in 1875, we need to review

the history of the country.

If, if we go back a couple of
hundred years to the 16th and 17th

centuries, Iran had been one
of the world's superpowers, if you

like. At that time, this was at
the time of the Safavid Dynasty,

the splendors of the court of the Safavid
monarch at that time was, was one of the

sort of most magnificent courts in the
world, and travelers would come from

all around the world to Iran to set up
trade and to set up treaties and so on.

And then at the beginning of the
18th century, disaster set in the

Safavid Dynasty fell from power.

There was an invasion of
the country by Afghans.

There was civil war, there was disorder
through the whole of the 18th century.

And then at the beginning of the
19th century, there were two wars -

one with Russia and one with Britain,
which brought home to the people of

Iran, how far behind they had fallen.

Even only a hundred years earlier

they'd been at the sort of forefront
of civilization, one of the

leading countries in the world.

And now 120, 30 years later, they were

being defeated by Russia and
comprehensively defeated.

And as a result of those defeats,
they lost large amounts of land in

the Caucasus region, Armenia, and
what's now the country of Azerbaijan.

They lost those to Russia.

And so this sparked a debate in
Iran about what should be done.

How are we going to get back to
being a modern power, a significant

power in the world again?

And this book that Abdul-Baha wrote, Secret
of Divine Civilization, was a contribution

to the debate that was going on.

And the, the, the debate that was
going on was basically between those

who wanted to push for modernization,
and they saw this mainly as being an

importing of the political structures,
laws and the education that was

going on in the west at that time.

And then on the other
side, there were those who

resisted this and wanted to cling
onto tradition, traditional forms

of government and traditional laws
and education systems and so on.

So the reformers were calling for radical
reform of Iran's political system,

its legal system, and its educational
system, and Abdul-Baha's book was

a contribution to that debate.

The specific context for
the book was that, and the

reason it was written at that

particular time because this discussion,
this debate had been going on really from

the early part of the century when, when
they had Iran had suffered these defeats.

But specifically in 1875, well just
a couple of years earlier, a certain

person called Moshir-ol-Dole had first been an
ambassador in Istanbul, but then between

1870 and 73, he had become Prime Minister
and he had tried to carry out reforms and.

As part of this, he'd even taken Naserurddin
Shah in 1873 on a tour around

Europe to show him what Europe was like
and, and what he was trying to achieve in

Iran in trying to raise Iran to the level
of standard of civilization that that

the West had achieved -
that Europe had achieved.

So this book written in 1875 was a, a
contribution to this debate that was going

on in Iran because Moshir-o-Dole had come
up against these traditionalist opposers

of reform and it in fact, by 1875.

He was no longer the Prime Minister.

He was still a minister, and he was still
there at the Center of Affairs, but he'd

had a major setback and the reforms were
looking on the ropes as it were there.

It was questionable whether he
was going to be able to continue

with, with what he had planned.

So Abdul-Baha brought out this book.

And what was the focus in, in
the Secret of Diviine Civilication?

What, what was the message
which Abdul-Baha was conveying?

Momen: As far as the contents of Secret of
Divine Civilization is concerned,

Abdul-Baha discusses a number of
subjects on the reform agenda that

was being discussed by others as well.

And He lists a number of
measures that needed to be taken.

Many of these were also in
the treatises of others who were

discussing these matters at that time.

For example, universal education,

legal reforms, the development of
trade, the arts, sciences and so on,

the guaranteeing of individual rights
to security of property equality before

the law of every individual trying to
eliminate corruption in, in the society

and the setting up of councils and, uh,
particularly councils of ministers, uh,

as a way of running the country rather
than just by the decree of the Shah.

So Abdul-Baha mentions all of these
things in his treaties, but as I say,

the, these were things that the other
reformers were also talking about.

What sets Abdul-Baha's treatise apart
from the other people who are discussing

reform and what sets Abdul-Baha?

treaties, apart from
those other treatises are also just

as relevant today as they were.

Uh, they, they're relevant today to the
whole world just as much as they were

to Iran in the end of the 19th century.

Much of Abdul-Baha's treatise is taken
up with this proposition that reforms,

no matter how far reaching and well
thought through they are, will have no beneficial

effect unless there's an underlying
moral and spiritual transformation

of the individuals in that society.

The true foundations of civilization,
Abdul-Baha, maintains, is not to be

found in political ideologies or in

lists of political and social
reforms such as the ones that the

other reformers were discussing.

Reform and progress can only come
about if the individual members of a

society are motivated towards justice,
high mindedness and other virtues.

So, for example, Abdul-Baha in that
treatise advocates the free elections

of the members of the consultative
assemblies, the parliaments.

And you have to remember at this time,
The other Iranian reformers, were not

talking about elections to parliaments.

They were just talking about having
a council of ministers appointed

by the king to advise the king.

There was no talk about general
democracy in Iran at this time.

And you have to remember that even most
European states at that time didn't have

a representative democracy pretty well.

Only England and maybe some of the
Scandinavian countries in Europe,

and of course the United States in
in North America had democracies.

And even then they weren't
democracies in the sense that we

would think of a democracy today.

The suffrage was limited
to men, so women were

completely excluded.

And in most places, the vote
was given to men with property.

So we're talking about maybe
five or 10% of the population.

So even in those countries
where there was democracy, it

was a very limited democracy.

And yet Abdul-Bahar talks about, in
effect, everyone having the vote.

And he goes on to say that
this is so that members can be

elected to these assemblies.

But then He says, If they be not
righteous, God-fearing, high-minded

incorruptible, then the desired
results will not be achieved.

So He is going back to this idea
that you have to have individuals

who have these qualities before
even a democracy will work.

So then, you know, having discussed
this idea that without moral and,

and spiritual transformation,
you, you're not gonna progress.

He then talks about how you can
achieve this individual moral

and spiritual transformation.

And He says that this is best achieved
through religion because it provides

the motivation for individuals to
disregard their own advantage and

advance justice in society and be
of service to the public interest.

And so He comes to this idea of religion
being the main motive for progress

and the advancement of civilization,
particularly if that religion is the

cause of unity and agreement between
the individual members of society.

And religion is the best
way of achieving that unity.

So that's a, a summary of the
contents of the book. Of course,

there are lots of other things that
Abdul-Baha deals with in that book.

For example, He makes a list of
the qualities that are required for

individuals who are going to be public
servants, who are going to be either civil

servants or are going to be members of
the, parliament or members of, of.

The consultative assemblies and so forth.

So there are other issues as well.

But tho those are the main
things that He writes about.

You see this longing even today for
this idea of governance with integrity?

Momen: Yes.

As I say, this book of Abdul-Baha's
was written a long time ago now,

150 years ago or more, and
yet, you know, the, the, the themes

that he deals with, the issues that
he brings up are just as relevant

today as, as they were at that time.

Now Secret of Divine Civilization
got incredibly wide distribution

throughout Iranian society.

How did that occur?

Momen: Well, Abdul-Baha very wisely
decided to publish this anonymously.

He says in the introduction that the,
the reason He's doing this is that

He was, He's not seeking any position
for himself or any fame or anything.

He's doing this as a service
to the people of Iran.

And He published it a anonymously because
if He'd published it in his own name, if

it became known that this was a book that
the Baha'is were promulgating, it would

probably have been completely ignored,
but because he published it anonymously,

and it was one of the very earliest
books that the Baha'i community in Iran

actually got printed and, and published,
they got it printed in in India,

they, the Baha'is weren't able to publish
books in Iran itself, but they got it

printed in India and
then distributed in Iran.

And because it was anonymous and
because in the book Abdul-Baha makes no

mention of the Baha'i Faith at all,
the Baha'is were able to distribute it.

And because it was a, a useful and
positive contribution to the debate

that was going on, then obviously
it had a great deal of appeal.

And we know that it was read quite
widely because we, we find it in the

booking collections of, of treatises
on reform that were collected and

even though it was anonymous, it it's
referred to, so we know it was read.

I mean, it's difficult to know how widely
it was read and how influential it was,

but it certainly was in the debate.

Now let's jump forward to the
third book, which Abdul-Baha

wrote The Treatise on Politics.

I think it's fair to say that most
Baha'is, at least in the West particularly,

aren't really even aware that this
book exists because it hasn't yet been

officially translated into English.

Now the World Center tells
us that the release of this

translated version is imminent.

So that's something I think we
can all really look forward to.

And in these two episodes, we'll get a
little bit of a glimpse about what that

book is really about, and it's a book
that seems to have particularly relevance

to the circumstances of our time today.

As you'll discover, as
we explore its themes.

So this book, the Treatise on
Politics, directly intersects with

the reform process in Iran around
the turn of the century, a process

that ultimately gave rise to Iran's
first democratic institutions.

Moojan, can you please tell
us more about the treatise?

Help us better understand the
background and context to it.

What were the circumstances which led
Abdul-Baha to write this follow up really

to the Secret of Divine Civilization?

Momen: The

context for Abdul-Baha writing

this treatise came about because
the Shah of Iran had been running

a really extravagant lifestyle.

He was spending money on a huge scale,
and the particular thing that he was doing

was going on foreign trips with a large
retinue, which cost a huge amount of money,

and it was more money than what he could
raise in the way of taxes and sales of,

of governorships and this sort of thing.

Thing that that was his
usual way of raising money.

So he began selling off
national assets to foreigners.

He would sell off, for example,
mining rights that the right to

mine resources in the country.

He would sell off the
right to build a railroad.

He would sell off the rights to
navigation on particular rivers.

This was the sort of thing
that that was happening.

And the particular thing that

sparked off a lot of protests was when
he sold the right to the cultivation

and processing and sale of, of
tobacco in 1890 to a British

entrepreneur called Major Talbot.

The thing was that the previous sales
of concessions to things like mining and

building of railroads didn't really affect
people very much, but tobacco affected

a large percentage of the population.

Because there were a large number of
people engaged in growing the tobacco

and processing the tobacco and selling
the tobacco, and a very large portion

of the population smoked tobacco.

So this concession, which was
inevitably going to lead to a rise

in the price of tobacco, because
whatever the price of tobacco was.

The person who

won this concession was going to have
to make profits on top of that in

order to pay for the large amount
of money that he paid to buy the

concession in the first place.

So it was inevitably going to lead to
a rise in the, in the price of tobacco.

And as I say, a, a very large
proportion of the population was

smoking tobacco at this time, not
in cigarettes as as you would do in

the west today, but through these.

Hubble bubble pipes or hooka
as some people call them.

Devices that burn the tobacco

and then you inhale the smoke
through water. That was the

usual way of, of consuming tobacco.

So a large proportion of the population
smoke and they were all very

outraged that this concession was
inevitably going to lead to a rise in the

price of tobacco, and there started to
be protests in the streets about this.

Now, in the preceding decades, the
Shah had silenced all of the main.

Political reformers such as Malcolm
Hannan said Jamar the dean and

had exiled them from the country.

So leadership of these protests fell
to the clergy and they eventually

forced the Shah to abandon this
tobacco concessional, tobacco re

regime as it's sometimes called.

And this together with a, a couple
of other similar successes over

other concessions, gave the
clergy a, a taste for power.

And some of them began to write in
terms of the idea that as they were

the deputies of the Hidden Imam, the,
the Imadi who they believed was in

hiding, but they were his deputies.

They were the more rightful rulers
of the country than the Shah was.

So they started to broach these ideas, and
Abdul-Baha was responding to this situation

in Iran when He wrote this treatise.

So Moojan, since most of us haven't
been able to read the treatise on

politics directly, since it's not
yet translated, maybe you could

give us a quick summary of what the
contents of this treatise is about.

Momen: Yes,
it's quite a short treatise.

It's, it's not a, it's not a lengthy work.

And basically what Abdul-Baha does after
referring to the problems that were

going on in Iran at the time, is that
He lays down a couple of principles.

First of all, He warns about the
fact that the clerical class, the,

the religious leaders are not

fit people to govern a country.

Their, their training is in, you
know, the obscure aspects of, of

the holy law and their training
doesn't make them fit for governance.

And then he points out that in the
history of Iran, every time these

religious leaders have come to the
fore and have interfered in politics,

their results for Iran
have been disastrous.

He gives several examples, one of
which, for example, was the war

that Iran fought with Russia at
the beginning of the 19th century.

The clerics insisted on
this war being fought.

They put out fathwas of jihad, and they
called for jihad, and they pestered the

crown prince and the king to
initiate this war, and the

result was disastrous for Iran.

Iran lost a large amount of
territory, maybe a third the amount

of the present land area of Iran.

It lost in the caucuses, Georgia,
Armenia, Azerbaijan, and so on.

So that's just one of

three or four examples He gives.

And then He lays down the principle
that really the religious leaders

should stick to the moral guidance
of the people that, that they should

stick to giving religious guidance.

And he calls for a sort
of separation, as it were.

The religious leaders should
stick to religious matters and

leave the political leaders to,
to get on with, with governing.

And then He also talks a little bit
about the fact that, you know, at that

time there was a, a lot of political
agitation going on and He advises that

in effect, He says that, you know,
this is not the best way of going about

getting improvement in the country.

It's not the best way of reforming,
it's not the best way of achieving

your aims, that it requires order for
society to progress and causing disorder.

It never brings about a better
state of affairs, it just leads

to more and more disorder.

So He talks a little bit about
sort of conflict in society and

conflict between nations and, and
how these things are not conducive

to the advancement of civilization.

Those are the main themes
really in, in the book.

So Moojan John, this is probably a good
place for us to pause in our story.

I, I know it's a little
bit of a cliffhanger.

You've done a great job in laying
down the foundation for our discussions

today, giving us the background
and historical context behind

abdul-Baha authoring these two
seminal works, the the Secret

of Divine Civilization and
this Treatise on Politics.

So if it's okay with you,
Moojan jan, we'll continue our

discussion in our next episode.

Momen: Yes, I hope to continue the discussion.


So we'll continue with our
story in our next episode, Part

Two of our discussion, where we'll explore
more about how the Baha'i community of the

day engaged in society building, sharing
this council with wider society. And we'll

explore its ultimate impact in helping
shape the emergence of Iran's first

democratic institutions.

So again, I want to thank you Moojan jan,
but also I want to thank our audience.

Thank you for joining us today,
and don't forget to tune into Part

Two of our journey on this theme
of governance with integrity.

That's next time on Society Builders.

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