Grand Narratives and the Bahá'í Writings Part 2

7: Essentialism and the Bahá’í Grand Narrative


            The Bahá’í Writings and the metanarrative that grows out of them accept essentialism, i.e. the philosophical view that all things have specific nature and attributes that distinguish them from other things in a real and objective way.  According to the Writings, all things have an essence, among them God[1]; “all created things;[2]” the human soul[3]; humankind[4]; justice[5]; beauty[6]; species of living things[7]; truth[8];  religion[9];“this new age”[10]; “existence”[11] and the spirit.[12] These references to the essence are even more wide-spread once we realise that such phrases as “inmost reality”; “the realities of,” the “inner reality,” and “inner realities” also refer to the essence of things.[13] As we shall demonstrate below, essentialism is the logical and ontological foundation of the doctrine of progressive revelation. 


            According to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, essences cannot be known directly and immediately by intuitive insight but can be known only indirectly by studying their actualized attributes or qualities: 


            Know that there are two kinds of knowledge: the knowledge of the essence of a thing and      the knowledge of its qualities. The essence of a thing is known through its qualities;             otherwise, it is unknown and hidden . . . For example, the inner essence of the sun is             unknown, but is understood by its qualities, which are heat and light. The inner essence            of man is unknown and not evident, but by its qualities it is characterized and known.     Thus everything is known by its qualities and not by its essence.[14]


This principle even applies to God:


            That is to say, as things can only be known by their qualities and not by their essence, it       is certain that the Divine Reality is unknown with regard to its essence and is known             with regard to its attributes.[15]

These attributes are made known to us by the Manifestations.[16]


            Furthermore, there are two kinds of attributes – essential and accidental. Essential attributes are those that a thing must have to be the kind of thing it is e.g. three wheels to be a tricycle. Accidental attributes are those which are “non-essential”[17] as illustrated in the statement that “that which is changeable is accidental, evanescent.”[18] The tricycle’s color can be changed and, therefore, may be seen as “evanescent” but the necessity of three wheels is permanent or essential. God, of course, has no accidental attributes since that would deny His unchangeable nature and perfect unity. 


            The distinction between essential and accidental attributes is the metaphysical foundation for progressive revelation. Writing about these two aspects of the divine teachings, 'Abdu'l-Bahá states,  


            Each one of the divine religions has established two kinds of ordinances: the essential          and the accidental. The essential ordinances rest upon the firm, unchanging, eternal            foundations of the Word itself. They concern spiritualities, seek to stabilize morals,            awaken intuitive susceptibilities, reveal the knowledge of God and inculcate the love of       all mankind. The accidental laws concern the administration of outer human actions and     relations, establishing rules and regulations requisite for the world of bodies and their          control. These are ever subject to change and supersedure according to exigencies of time, place and condition[19]


Elsewhere 'Abdu'l-Bahá declares,


            We must remember that these changing laws are not the essentials; they are the             accidentals of religion. The essential ordinances established by a Manifestation of God     are spiritual; they concern moralities, the ethical development of man and faith in God.    They are ideal and necessarily permanent -- expressions of the one foundation and not       amenable to change or transformation. Therefore, the fundamental basis of the revealed          religion of God is immutable, unchanging throughout the centuries, not subject to the varying conditions of the human world.[20]


Shoghi Effendi refers to this distinction between the essential and the accidental when he discusses the “eternal verities” that are permanent and underlie all religions in contrast to the “nonessential and spurious in their teachings.”[21] In a very apt metaphor, one author calls these “eternal verities” the “golden core”[22] of religion in contrast to the accidental adaptations to a particular time and place. In the words of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, “every one of the divine religions contains essential ordinances, which are not subject to change, and material ordinances, which are abrogated according to the exigencies of time.”[23] Moreover, he adds,


            The second division comprises laws and institutions which provide for human needs and      conditions according to exigencies of time and place. These are accidental, of no             essential importance and should never have been made the cause and source of human             contention[24]


Here we see how the Bahá’í principle of rejecting religious conflict of any kind is logically justified by its metaphysical basis in the essence/accident distinction. The rejection of religious conflict is not solely a matter of good will towards men but also a matter of strict philosophical

reasoning. This also demonstrates 'Abdu'l-Bahá’s dictum that “The world of minds corresponds with the world of hearts[25] insofar as our good will towards humankind is correlated to rational philosophical principles.


            Finally, the essence/attribute distinction allows us to avoid the apparent contradiction between the unchangeable “eternal verities” which are absolute and unchangeable by virtue of being “eternal” and statement that “religious truth is not absolute but relative, that Divine Revelation is progressive, not final.”[26] The seeming self-contradiction is solved by recalling that the changes are in the accidental or culture-bound attributes of a revelation and not in its unchangeable inner essence or “eternal verities.” This distinction meets the requirements of both stability and growth. The “eternal verities” provide a stable foundation for knowledge and faith, without which, ethics would be inescapably reduced to subjectivity and preference. The accidental qualities allow – under the guidance of the Manifestation for a specific age – adaptation of the essentials to various cultural conditions.


8: The Ontology of Potentials


            Another aspect of the metaphysics underlying the Bahá’í grand narrative of world history

is the ontology of potentials that characterizes the nature of created things. The ontology of potentials – which has its roots in Aristotle[27]  – states that (1) all things are characterized or defined by particular set of potentials or changes they can or cannot undergo; (2) this set of potentials is their essence as a member of a species or group and as a unique individual within that group; (3) all things seek to actualize their potentials to an optimal degree, i.e. the principle of perfectibility which is especially true of the human soul.[28] This principle is at work in the doctrine of progressive revelation which depends on continual progress in our self-actualization to operate. Let us examine an example of these ideas. At birth, a puppy has a certain set of potentials that make it (a) a member of the dog species and (b) a specific set of potentials that make it a particular puppy. No matter what happens, it has no potentials to become a grasshopper or a duck. During its life-time, a dog can actualize its potentials for protection, playing Frisbee and Flyball and obeying certain commands. In most dogs, the potential to hunt and mate is unrealized. However, few if any beings – dogs or humans – it exist long enough to actualize their full potentials for which reason unactualized attributes/potentials are necessary aspects of their essence. In that sense, there is a mystery in all created beings.


            The Writings make it clear that potentials are not small physical ‘things’ embedded in an entity like raisins in a bun.[29] According to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá potentials are present but not visible or apparent: branches and leaves are “in the seed, potentially, though not apparently.”[30]  Elsewhere he states,

One of the functions of the sun is to quicken and reveal the hidden realities of the kingdoms of existence. Through the light and heat of the great central luminary, all that is potential in the earth is awakened and comes forth into the realm of the visible.[31]


The Writings reject strict empiricism in which being real is equivalent to being perceptible[32], and assert the existence of “intellectual realities” which “do not exist outwardly . . . that is to say, intellectual realities which are not sensible, and which have no outward existence.”[33] Furthermore, since potentials are an aspect of an entity’s essence, and the essence of things is not available for direct human knowledge[34] it follows that the potentials of things are not knowable, i.e. not visible to humankind. In the sciences, the subject of non-sensible and unpredictable potentials, i.e. hidden, undetectable possibilities is covered by the subject of ‘emergence.’ For example, nothing in oxygen and hydrogen atoms provides empirical evidence that the combination of these atoms, i.e. water, will (1) be clear; (2) be a liquid and (3) will expand when cooled below 4 degrees C unlike all other materials. This and other examples of emergence – the symmetrical and fractal based patterns of snowflakes – support the Bahá’í view of potentials.


             The ontology of potentials is essential to the Bahá’í grand narrative insofar as it grounds the concept of the perfectibility of man which is itself essential to the doctrine of progressive revelation. According to Bahá'u'lláh we must “Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom.”[35] Bahá'u'lláh informs us that only education can actualize these gem-like potentials and make them visible, and, thereby allow us to fulfill His command that “          All men have been created to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization.”[36] It is important to notice the universal and categorical term “all” which tells us there are no exceptions to this purpose. The actualization of potentials and most especially the actualization of the higher spiritual potentials are vital to the goal of the unification of humankind. Only by striving for self-transcendence and self-overcoming can this goal be reached. [37]


            Only by improving spiritually as well as materially can we make any real progress, and      become perfect beings. It was in order to bring this spiritual life and light into the world   that all the great Teachers have appeared. They came so that the Sun of Truth might be        manifested, and shine in the hearts of men, and that through its wondrous power men     might attain unto Everlasting Light.[38]


In this passage, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá connects the three concepts of spiritual and material progress with the doctrine of progressive revelation as initiated and guided by God’s Manifestations.


The ontology of potentials is the basis of an objective standard by which to measure

human progress, i.e. the degree to which potentials have been actualized in any given individual or society. In regards to individuals – including ourselves – 'Abdu'l-Bahá says,


            The only real difference that exists between people is that they are at various stages of         development. Some are imperfect -- these must be brought to perfection. Some are asleep -- they must be awakened; some are negligent -- they must be roused; but one and all are the children of God. Love them all with your whole heart; no one is a stranger to the             other, all are friends.[39]


This can be applied not only to individuals (including ourselves) who, for whatever reason,  have not actualized their potentials but also to cultures and nations, as seen in 'Abdu'l-Bahá’s question about Persia: “Must she now, for this contemptible sloth, this failure to struggle, this utter ignorance, be accounted the most backward of nations?”[40] Similarly, he says of Paris, and by extension, the West, that “her spiritual progress is far behind that of her material civilization.”[41] Shoghi Effendi refers to “backward peoples”[42] in various parts of the world. The standard by which to assess progress is the degree to which this person, or this culture have actualized or expanded the actualization of their latent potentials. From a Bahá’í perspective, the answer seems clear: advanced individuals or cultures are those which have actualized the most  potentials and provided more opportunities for more people to develop their potentials, i.e. their “inestimable gems.” 


However, it must be emphasized that the actualization of potentials must not be one-sided, especially in the materialist direction:


            I want to make you understand that material progress and spiritual progress are two very     different things, and that only if material progress goes hand in hand with spirituality can           any real progress come about . . . The laws of God may be likened unto the soul and        material progress unto the body. If the body was not animated by the soul, it would cease    to exist. It is my earnest prayer that spirituality may ever grow and increase in the world,             so that customs may become enlightened and peace and concord may be established.[43]

In other words, progress consists of the actualization of our material, intellectual and above all our spiritual potentials to the greatest degree possible in the greatest possible number of people. Of course, in light of the final goal of world history, we are all spiritually and/or materially “backward,” albeit not necessarily in equal measure.

9: Controversies about Grand Narratives

            Grand narratives are sharply criticized and strenuously rejected by contemporary postmodern philosophers, historians and cultural studies scholars. Since the Bahá'í Writings explicitly present a grand narrative, it is, in my view, imperative to understand at least some of these critiques and the possible answers – especially those from the Bahá'í Writings. Such knowledge is not only valuable to Bahá'ís engaged in teaching or apologetics but also to scholars of comparative religion and philosophy.

            Ever since the publication of Spengler’s Decline of the West (1919) and Toynbee’s A Study of History (1934 – 1961) grand narratives have been a highly controversial subject among philosophers, historians and cultural studies scholars. Among the philosophers, Karl Popper, an influential philosopher of science, was the most persistent and systematic opponent who not only only rejected grand narratives as intellectually mistaken  but also as a potent source of evil. In The Poverty of Historicism (1957) and The Open Society and Its Enemies (1962) Popper strives to undermine the philosophical underpinnings which make grand narratives possible. In so doing, he anticipates most of the postmodernist – e.g. Lyotard – critiques about the “totalization”[44] and “terrorism”[45] supposedly inflicted by metanarratives. 

            In The Poverty of Historicism and The Open Society and Its Enemies Popper blames metanarratives from Plato to Hegel and Marx for the rise of totalitarian regimes in Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. In fact, he dedicated The Poverty of Historicism to all those who “fell victim to the fascist and communist belief in Inexorable Laws of Historical Destiny.”[46] His objection to grand narratives and the implied ability to predict – or identify possible or probable developments – is that grand narratives lead to all the associated ills of totalitarianism with omnipresent state planning and gleichschaltung, i.e. an enforced coordination of all aspects of public and private life and the reduction of the individual to a mere means or tool of the state. For Popper grand narratives have no redeeming features.

            According to Popper, grand narratives (although the term had not yet been invented) are a  part of “historicism” which he defines as

an approach to the social sciences which assumes that historical prediction is their principal aim, and which assumes that this aim is attainable by discovering the ‘rhythms’ or the ‘patterns’ the ‘laws’ or the ‘trends’ that underlie the evolution of history.[47]

In Popper’s view, there are no laws manifested in history, which means, in effect, there are no regularities, patterns or trends to be seen and, therefore, no grand narrative to be established. Therefore, “History has no meaning.”[48] Because it has “no meaning” it has no goals or even a general direction, i.e. is not teleological.  He continues, saying that, “There is no history of mankind, there is only an indefinite number of histories of all kinds of aspects of human life.”[49] With this statement, Popper, like the postmodernists, asserts a nominalistic view of history by breaking up all concepts of a universal ‘human history’ into a multitude of smaller individual histories of localities, nations and so on. Toynbee aptly describes Popper’s view as “antinomian”[50] insofar as the historical process is not subject to any regularity or law.

            In light of our foregoing discussion of the Bahá'í grand narrative, the clash between the Bahá'í teachings and Popper’s views are inescapable. However, in our view, none of Popper’s critiques of metanarratives are especially salient, i.e. there is less than meets the eye.  Let us begin with the four main weaknesses that undermine his argument. 

The first weakness is blatant self-contradiction at the most fundamental level: to make his complaint about ‘historicism’ and grand narratives, Popper indulges in ‘historicism’ himself. He claims that there are no predictable patterns in history and yet he asserts the existence of such patterns on the basis of historical events in Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and Communist Russia and then predicts that such grand narratives necessarily and inevitably lead to totalitarian states. If history has no pattern and cannot be predicted, on what basis does he make his prediction? And without evidence, i.e. patterns or laws – or even the possibility of evidence – why should we accept his word. him? On this score, Popper’s argument is logically flawed and unpersuasive.

There is a second weakness, namely, if history is too complex to allow grand generalizations or grand narratives of history, then there is no basis for Popper’s thesis that history lacks order and is too complex to be known. How could he know this if history is too complex to be knowable? Such a judgment already pre-supposes a complete knowledge of history – something he says is beyond us. The most he can say is that he can discover no order – but it does not logically follow therefrom that no order exists. Nor is his inability to find an order in history logically sufficient to reject all other attempts to disclose such order and meaning. In short, Popper asserts but he does not prove.

A third weakness is that Popper’s denial of meaning in history is, in effect, no more than a proposal for a different meaning of history, i.e. for an alternate grand narrative of the historical process even though his argument supposedly forbids metanarratives. To say that human actions lack order and meaning and exhibit no value or purpose is, in effect, an alternative interpretation of history, albeit a negative one. This is no logical caprice such as claiming that ‘nothing’ is ‘something.’ Popper’s negative metanarrative resembles positive metanarratives insofar they both embed a certain set of beliefs, principles and values and both prohibit certain other views. In short, both function in a similar manner. Popper’s grand narrative endorses or at least encourages a particular set of beliefs and values, i.e. those usually associated with atheist secular humanism which recognizes humankind as the only source of values and only the physical as real. 

Despite his arguments against grand narratives, Popper still feels the need for some sensed of meaning in history: “Although history has no ends, we can impose these ends of ours upon it; and although history has no meaning, we can give it a meaning.”[51]  Unfortunately, there is an obvious problem here. If we know that the historical process is intrinsically chaotic and complex beyond all human understanding, it is difficult to see how we can successfully “impose” our own order on it. Either this man-made order is entirely fictional and, therefore, of dubious, or it reflects or connects to something real in the historical process. However, in the latter case Popper’s rejection of grand narratives would be at least partially false, i.e. there is at least some genuine order we can connect with. 

The fourth – and the most important problem with Popper’s theories – is clearly SHOWN  by the Bahá'í Writing: history is turbulent and sometimes even chaotic but there is one constant throughout: human nature. The essential oneness of human nature is the field on which all the historical turmoil plays out. Whatever the historical events, the responses are inevitably shaped  and limited by human nature itself. As W.H. Walsh notes, “history is properly concerned with human experiences,”[52] adding that “History is intelligible . . . because it is a manifestation of mind.”[53] History is constituted by our understandings of and reactions to what we experience. R.G. Collingwood expresses the same idea as follows: “For history, the object to be discovered is not the mere event, but the thought expressed in it.”[54] Thought, “the object to be discovered” is also shaped and limited by human nature no less than action. The conclusion is inescapable: the human mind – or the “rational soul” as the Bahá'í Writings call it – is the underlying common denominator that unifies all the various histories of humankind. W.H. Walsh concludes that “[A] fundamental set of generalizations, belonging to the science of human nature, is presupposed in all historical work.”[55]

The unity of human nature is a foundational principle of the Bahá'í Writings. It is most obviously evident at the physical level. 'Abdu'l-Bahá says,  

When we observe the human world, we find various collective expressions of unity therein. For instance, man is distinguished from the animal by his degree, or kingdom. This comprehensive distinction includes all the posterity of Adam and constitutes one great household or human family, which may be considered the fundamental or physical unity of mankind.[56]

In other words, human nature as a whole is distinguished from animal nature and, therefore, humans make up one family that illustrates “the physical unity of mankind.” The sciences provide decisive evidence for this “physical unity.” It is self-evident that medical science, i.e. doctors, surgeons, physiologists and pharmacologists study the same basic texts the world over because our physiological processes and organs are essentially the same regardless of ethnic origins. Moreover, in the 1950’s, humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow established his widely influential[57]  hierarchy of physical, psycho-social and even spiritual needs which characterize human nature everywhere.[58] All humans have D-needs for survival – air, water, food, shelter, protection, appropriate clothing and opportunities to look after ourselves – and B-needs which we need not to survive but to thrive, to be fulfilled as specifically human individuals. Among these needs are purpose and meaning, friendship and appreciation.

            Further evidence for the essential oneness of mankind comes from anthropology and cognitive science. As noted by prominent anthropologist Donald E Brown in Human Universals, “human biology is a key to understanding many human universals.”[59] In The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist, explores the philosophical history leading to the rejection of the concept of a universal human nature. Based on but also extending the work of Donald Brown, he lists over three hundred traits as universal.[60]

            The Bahá’í Writings also inform us that the universal attributes of humankind are not only physical but also spiritual and intellectual: 


            The human spirit which distinguishes man from the animal is the rational soul, and these    two names -- the human spirit and the rational soul -- designate one thing. This spirit, which in the terminology of the philosophers is the rational soul[61]

The message is clear: regardless of culture, time, place or circumstance, all people share one human nature because they all have a rational soul. We also share a higher, spiritual nature and a lower animal nature which the higher nature must control.[62] In addition, we all possess “spiritual susceptibilities”[63] which must be cultivated in order to make spiritual progress possible. Since there is a universal human nature it must be manifested in historical human actions. Indeed, a universal ethic is also possible because of our universal human nature insofar as at least some ethical rules apply to everyone at all times and in all places. Since God is the creator of human nature, no one is better qualified than God to establish what this ethic is and His Manifestations to reveal it. As Shoghi Effendi notes, all the Manifestations teach the “eternal verities . . .[64] Consequently, there are objective ethical standards valid across all cultures, places, times and circumstances and that cross-cultural moral judgments are possible.

            Not only is human nature universal, it is also stable over time, i.e. it is stable in history.  This is evident in Shoghi Effendi’s statement that the successive Manifestations “restate the eternal verities”[65]over the course of human history. If human nature changed, then the “eternal verities” would not be relevant or applicable any longer. `Abdu'l-Bahá, reinforces this point when, writing of evolution, he says that man’s “species and essence undergo no change.”[66] In short, human nature is constant. The actualization of hidden and latent potentials is not, of course, a change in nature but a fulfillment or completion of our nature. Such actualization of potentials is what occurs during the historical process that, in the Bahá’í grand narrative, culminates in a world-wide federal commonwealth united by “one common faith.”[67]            

            Another criticism of grand narratives is that they do not follow the methods of ‘scientific history.’ The demand for ‘scientific history’ is itself problematic and, therefore, weak. It is hard to know what this demand is supposed to mean. Clearly, grand narratives cannot follow the methods of the experimental sciences though it can follow the scientific method of forming a hypothesis, gathering evidence, testing the hypothesis and then arriving at a conclusion. However, as we shall see, the three writers examined by this study – Spengler, Toynbee and Sorokin – fulfill ther requirements of the scientific method.

However, if by ‘scientific’ we mean limiting all conclusions to what can be directly and literally documented, then R.G. Collingwood makes the obvious point that history is more than just documentable events and is the history of “the thoughts out of which these events grew?”[68] Elsewhere he says, history cannot be limited to external events. William H McNeil expresses this issue more dramatically, commenting that “ink-soiled paper does not and never has embraced all the parameters of human life with which historians might appropriately concern themselves.” [69] William H Dray notes, “For it is surely the historian’s task . . . not only to establish the facts, but to understand them. And this will involve him in giving explanations.”[70] Explanations require interpretations and interpretations lead to judgments. He adds,

            Application of the evidence criterion to history isn’t contentious: we do not find theorists          arguing that history should be written in contravention of the evidence. Nonetheless, to           ask how and to what extent the evidence should guide historical accounts does permit substantive debate . . . The extent to which historical accounts are constrained by the      evidence invites consideration of the question of under-determination. It may be that             historical accounts are determined by the evidence to a significantly lesser extent than       are scientific accounts; in particular in so far as those historical accounts are          interpretive or narrative.[71]

            Other criticisms of grand narratives assert that they require the marginalization of certain knowledge, beliefs, and peoples as individuals or groups. This critique is invalid insofar as the Bahá'í teachings reject the marginalization of people and argue for the essential oneness of mankind. However the marginalization of people is not the same thing as the marginalization of ideas and knowledge-claims. Marginalizing individuals qua individuals cannot be justified but, the entire concept of ‘progress’ which is integral to the Writings (see below) necessitates leaving some knowledge behind as mistaken, impractical, malevolent or even “the outcome[s] of human perversity”[72] as Bahá'u'lláh says of “a few” religions. The rejection and marginalization of human beings and the rejection and marginalization of ideas, knowledge, beliefs and customs are not at all the same things. Bahá'u'lláh’s foregoing words about some religions as the “outcome[s] of human perversity” demonstrates, the Bahá'í Writings themselves show no hesitation in rejecting certain beliefs as false and superstitious and, in the case of a few religions, even perverse. Indeed, the Writings clearly acknowledge the existence of “error”[73], “idle fancies and vain imagining,”[74] “ignorance,”[75] “heedlessness and superstition,”[76] “futile”[77] and even “absurd.”[78] Furthermore, Bahá'u'lláh advises us to “meditate profoundly  . . .so that light may be distinguished from darkness, truth from falsehood, right from wrong, guidance from error, happiness from misery, and roses from thorns.”[79] In other words, the Writings privilege some truth-claims over others because this is necessary to human progress.  Indeed, the whole concept of progress which plays such an essential role in the Writings, means that some knowledge, some beliefs, some practices must be abandoned, i.e. permanently marginalized. Indeed,  Bahá'u'lláh’s  assertion that “All men have been created to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization”[80] virtually requires us to leave behind all those beliefs, attitudes, loyalties and practices that hinder progress, and most notably, those that hinder progress towards the unification of humankind. His statement also requires us to recognize that humanity as a whole shares the same divinely given task.

            A final critique of grand narratives is that they artificially impose a pattern or agenda on the historical process. It is difficult to understand this critique since to one degree or another, all histories except, perhaps, the simplest lists of names or events can avoid some ‘imposition’ – but even there we cannot avoid some choice of what to include and leave out and, thereby, the judgments and interpretation doing so entails. All histories must do this and more: choices about what to accept as evidence (documents, oral traditions, eye witnesses, logical deductions); judgments about importance and relevance; meaning and implications of various kinds. Thus, making imposing patterns a special misdeed for grand narratives is an obvious case of special pleading.  Imposing an ‘agenda’ is no unique sin of metanarratives. Nor is it necessarily dishonest or obfuscating if we are open about writing to prove a certain viewpoint. Such statements of intent allow readers to investigate for themselves and form independent judgments.  Moreover, criticizing an author like Toynbee for finding religious truths illustrated in history seems hypocritical in light of the respectful reception given to Marxists like Eric Hawbsbawn and E.P. Thompson. Marxism itself is a grand narrative and those who work within the Marxist metanarrative are fleshing out smaller fragments of it. In our view, the common sense attitude to this issue lies with Sebastian Conrad’s defense that the concept of world history is, in principle, no less viable than other, more limited, historiographical theories and practices.[81] Such efforts are not inherently and necessarily flawed and, therefore, cannot be rejected a priori.

10: Global Grand Narratives

             To help us understand the nature of grand narratives of global history in particular, we must reflect on two inter-connected problems – scale and order. All global grand narratives claim that if we study history on a world scale we will be able to observe patterns of that are not visible at sub-global scales. However, this leads to a problem with other historians who work with smaller units of study such as nations. Georg Iggers writes that world historians like Fukuyama and Huntington are not

            taken seriously in recent historiography not only because of the political implications of           their work but also because they operate on a speculative plane of global history alien to            historians who avoid such schemes in their empirical work. However, the developments   of past decade and a half have shown that neither the turn to micro-history nor the older    patterns of national and regional history are sufficient for dealing with the          transformations that are taking place on a global scale . . . it is indisputable that there are      processes of modernization taking place before our eyes, most clearly in the scientific,         technological and . . . economic spheres, and . . . [modernization] has transformed      societies globally . . .  [and] must be taken seriously on a world scale.[82]  

Sebastian Conrad makes a similar point arguing that contrary to what opponents[83] of grand narratives assert,

            No unit [local, national, global] of study is inherently superior . . . No unit is the one             and only true unit of inquiry. What is more, different units direct our attention to different          processes. Different units . . . are not only different windows on the same subject, but     each window allows us to see processes that might not have come into view through           another window. The common criticism that the grand narratives get the details wrong is          beside the point – they aim at larger processes and trends.[84]

In other words, there are some kinds of historical knowledge we can only obtain by taking a larger, global view. This is not difficult to illustrate. A close sociological study of a family lets us focus very specifically on individual situations, self-images, familial dynamics, motives and actions among other things. We acquire detailed knowledge of individuals. However, such a narrow study does not tell us much about the trends and patterns in family life at the regional or even national level. Indeed, at the smaller scale, such knowledge is not available for observation. In statistics it is established that a small sample size is unreliable for drawing general conclusions about very large groups of people because some causal factors, correlations, trends and patterns only become significant when the sample size is sufficiently large. Appropriate sample size also washes out the outliers, those anomalies that can easily distort the knowledge we get from small scale studies. The difference in gathering knowledge at different scales is why historian William H McNeil states, “historian’s fixity of attention on national and local affairs is misleading.”[85] Similarly, Sebastian Conrad explains, “Global history thus acknowledges the causal relevance of factors that do not lie within the purview of individuals, nations, and civilizations.”[86]  What the foregoing discussion suggests is that insisting that only one scale or perspective is valid, denies us access to knowledge that may be essential to humankind.

            Sebastian Conrad rejects complaints about grand narratives getting factual details wrong as being “beside the point”[87] because grand narratives “aim [ ] at larger processes and trends.”[88] Larger processes or statistical sample sizes are not as sensitive to errors in detail as smaller processes and sample sizes where they can have undue influence on a smaller pool of data. Conrad makes the same point about errors allegedly found in meta-historians like Arnold Toynbee and Oswald Spengler. By itself, the existence of the outlier or detail error is not enough to disprove anything in large scale studies. W.H. Walsh makes the same point by saying that in the sphere of global history “a man can be wrong in detail and sound in essentials.”[89] To assert that an outlier or error invalidates a general trend or pattern or a grand narrative, we must show in each case the reasons why this difference causes a severe distortion in the pattern that has been found.  The mere assertion of error is not enough.            We shall now get into more details of the Bahá’í grand narrative in comparing and contrasting them with the work of Spengler, Toynbee and Sorokin

End of Part 2 of 4


[1] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 148.

[2] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá,, p. 111.

[3] Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, LXXXII, p. 159.

[4] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 184.

[5] Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, LXXXIII, p. 167.

[6] Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, CLI, p. 321.

[7] Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, CXXXVIII, p. 300.

[8] Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, CLIII, p. 328.

[9] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 344.

[10] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 304.

[11] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá,, p. 157.

[12] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá,,p. 167.

[13] For a complete list with specific references, see Ian Kluge, “The Aristotelian Substratum of the Bahá’í Writings” in Lights of Irfan, Vol. 4, 2003 and Ian Kluge, “Bahá’í Ontology: Part One: An Initial Reconnaissance” in Lights of Irfan Vol. 6, 2005 and  “Bahá’í Ontology: Part Two Further Explorations, Vol, 7, 2006; or .

[14] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 220; emphasis added.

[15] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 220.

[16] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 147.

[17] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Tablets of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Vol. 3, p. 562.

[18] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 416.

[19] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 338; emphasis added.

[20] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 365.

[21] Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is Come, p. 108.

[22] Alexander Skutch, The Golden Core of Religion.

[23] The Promulgation of Universal Peace 106.

[24] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 393; emphasis added.

[25] ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 270; emphasis added.

[26] Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of  Bahá’u’lláh 58; see also the Preface to The Promised Day is Come.

[27] Ian Kluge, “The Aristotelian Substratum of the Baha’i Writings,” in “Lights of Irfan Lights of Irfan, Vol. 4, 2003 or

[28] `Abdu'l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 85.

[29] To argue that in living things, DNA is the physical potential simply pushes the problem back into an infinite regress. From what did DNA arise and get the ability to determine development? As a result of this infinite regress we eventually conclude that something non-material, i.e. an essence must be part of the explanation.

[30] `Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 199; emphasis added.

[31] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 74; emphasis added. See also p. 186.

[32]  'Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 297.

[33] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 186; emphasis added.

[34] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 220.

[35] Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, CXXII, p. 259.

[36] Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, CIX, p. 214.

[37] ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 143.

[38] ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 63.

[39] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 171.

[40] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 8.

[41] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 27.

[42] Shoghi Effendi, The Unfolding Destiny of the British Baha’i Community, p. 25.

[43] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 108.

[44] Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, p.34.

[45] Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, p.63.

[46] Popper, The Poverty of Historicism, the dedication page.

[47] Karl Popper, The Poverty of Historicism, p. 3.

[48] Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, Vol. 2, p. 269.

[49] Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, Vol. 2, p. 270.

[50] Arnold Toynbee, quoted in “Toynbee” in Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Volume 7/8, p. 153.

[51] Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Vol. 2, p. 278; emphasis added.

[52] W.H. Walsh, Philosophy of History, p. 45.

[53] W.H. Walsh, Philosophy of History, p. 49.

[54] R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History, p. 214.

[55] W.H. Walsh, Philosophy of History, p. 71. We might note in passing that if the basis of history is the “science of human nature” then grand narratives have at least a scientific basis, and, in the Bahá'í case, represent a close convergence of science and religion.

[56] `Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 190; emphasis added.

[57] A Review of General Psychology survey, published in 2002, ranked Maslow as the tenth most cited psychologist of the 20th century;

[58] Abraham Maslow, Towards a Psychology of Being. 1962.

[59] Donald E Brown, Human Universals, p. 6. Brown adds “the study of universals has been effectively tabooed as an unintended consequence of assumptions that have predominated in anthropology and other social sciences.” p. 6.

[60] Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, p. 433 – 439.

[61] `Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 208.

[62] `Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 118.

[63] `Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 339.

[64] Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is Come, p. 107.

[65] Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is Come, p. 108.

[66] `Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 183,

[67] `Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 65.

[68] R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History, p. 132.

[69] William H. McNeil, Mythhistory and Other Essays, p. 73.

[70] William H Dray, Philosophy of History, p. 5; emphasis added.

[71] Mark Day, The Philosophy of History, p. 55; original emphasis.

[72] Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, CXI, p. 217.

[73] Abdu'l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p. 149.

[74] Bahá'u'lláh, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 15.

[75] Abdu'l-Baha, Some Answered Question, p. 6.

[76] Proclamation of Bahá'u'lláh, p.95.

[77] Abdu'l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p. 278.

[78] Abdu'l-Baha, Tablet to August Forel, p. 18

[79] Bahá'u'lláh, The Kitab-i-Iqan, p. 8.

[80] Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, CIX, p. 214.

[81] Sebastian Conrad, What is Global History?, p. 8 and throughout the book.

[82] Georeg G. Iggers, Historiography in the Twentieth Century, pp. 155 – 156; emphasis added.

[83] British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper one of Toynbee’s severest critics described “Toynbee's work as a "Philosophy of Mish-Mash." Pieter Geyl described Toynbee's ideological approach as "metaphysical speculations dressed up as history" Walter Kaufmann also sharply rejected Toynbee. French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard who invented the terms ‘grand narrative’ made the rejection of such narratives an integral part of postmodernism.

[84] Sebastian Conrad, What is Global History?, p. 133 – 134; emphasis added.

[85] William H McNeil, Mythistory and Other Essays, p. 79.

[86] Sebastian Conrad, What is Global History, p. 89.

[87] Sebastian Conrad, What is Global History, p. 134.

[88] Sebastian Conrad, What is Global History, p. 134.

[89] W.H. Walsh, Philosophy of History: An Introduction, p. 166.