Oh God, my God! Aid Thou Thy trusted servants to have loving and tender hearts. Help them to spread, amongst all the nations of the earth, the light of guidance that cometh from the Company on high. Verily, Thou art the Strong, the Powerful, the Mighty, the All-Subduing, the Ever-Giving. Verily, Thou art the Generous, the Gentle, the Tender, the Most Bountiful.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá, from Bahá’í Prayers, p201
This talk is entitled “Candles and The Internet”. We will talk first about the Internet, then about Candles. The link will become clear.
An introduction to the Internet
The Internet is pretty new; although the first part became operational in October 1969 the basic system was not up and running until 1980 and the Internet as we know it today began in the early 1990s. (See Wikipedia, History of the Internet.)
Prior to the Internet, if two computers needed to exchange information the technicians had to build a specific link. The idea of the Internet was to define a universal connection method so that any computer could talk to any computer, irrespective of make, model or size. A sort of international language for computers.
With the Internet in place it became possible for ordinary people, using computers worldwide, of all types, to interconnect. So when you send an email to a friend you don’t need to know what type of computer they have or what type of email program they are using, or even where in the world they are. The Internet helps people communicate.
It also helps people publish information and what’s special is that ordinary people can do it. You don’t need to learn to program a computer and you don’t need the resources of a news organisation like the BBC or the funds available to an international company. You can set up a website for less than £50 and all the Internet users in the world can see it. Great if you want to publish information about your charity; or you’re a business seeking to sell products; or an island trying to attract tourists; or a Faith wanting to tell people about your beliefs. For an example of the latter please have a look at the St. Helena Bahá’í website - www.sthelenabahai.org.
The Internet connects people the world over, in total 1.5 Billion of them. In other words about a quarter of the people on the planet use the Internet, and not just the ones actually on the planet; you can even use it to send messages to the astronauts on the International Space Station.
And what’s perhaps more amazing is that all of this was predicted more than seventy years ago. But let’s start a little further back; in 1906.
This Tablet of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is known as the Seven Lights or Candles of Unity (H.M. Balyuzi, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá - The Centre of the Covenant, p. 360). He wrote it in 1906 to a lady who had previously visited Him.
O honoured lady! In cycles gone by, though harmony was established, yet, owing to the absence of means, the unity of all mankind could not have been achieved. Continents remained widely divided, nay even among the peoples of one and the same continent association and interchange of thought were wellnigh impossible. Consequently intercourse, understanding and unity amongst all the peoples and kindreds of the earth were unattainable. In this day, however, means of communication have multiplied, and the five continents of the earth have virtually merged into one. And for everyone it is now easy to travel to any land, to associate and exchange views with its peoples, and to become familiar, through publications, with the conditions, the religious beliefs and the thoughts of all men. In like manner all the members of the human family, whether peoples or governments, cities or villages, have become increasingly interdependent. For none is self-sufficiency any longer possible, inasmuch as political ties unite all peoples and nations, and the bonds of trade and industry, of agriculture and education, are being strengthened every day. Hence the unity of all mankind can in this day be achieved. Verily this is none other but one of the wonders of this wondrous age, this glorious century. Of this past ages have been deprived, for this century -- the century of light -- hath been endowed with unique and unprecedented glory, power and illumination. Hence the miraculous unfolding of a fresh marvel every day. Eventually it will be seen how bright its candles will burn in the assemblage of man. Behold how its light is now dawning upon the world’s darkened horizon.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p32
In other words, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá believed that improvements in the methods of communication available to the world would drive forward man’s understanding of his fellow man and the world we live in, and this would help to bring about world unity.
If we take each of the 7 candles in turn we can see how that is working today and how the Internet is helping.
Candle 1: Unity in the Political Realm
Examples of this include the European Union, ASEAN and the growing worldwide realisation that environmental issues cannot be successfully addressed on a purely national level.
The internet keeps us all informed about policies and decisions and enables us to participate. It enables groups to communicate and allows individuals to have influence over governments.
Candle 2: Unity of thought in world undertakings
Again issues such as the environment, human rights and poverty are being addresses on a global scale, not just as national problems. Consider the “Make Poverty History” campaign where people around the world influenced their governments to take action. The Internet keeps us all informed and helps us coordinate and organise our response to what world leaders are doing (or not doing).
Candle 3: Unity of Freedom
Those who cannot express their beliefs in their own country, often now can through the Internet. And they can learn about and understand the freedoms others have and can communicate their lack of rights and freedom to the rest of the world.
Candle 4: Unity in Religion
Through the Internet we can read about, question & understand other faiths. It is no longer necessary to physically meet people from other cultures to find out about their beliefs direct from them, not just what others have written. This can help to break down the fears and stereotypes that have built up over the years or that people with a negative purpose may be trying to engender.
Through weblogs and social networks (e.g. Facebook) we can learn that other people, for all their cultural and religious differences, are really just like us.
Candle 5: the Unity of Nations
The United Nations and Commonwealth were the beginnings but the internet has broken down the national boundaries. People can now know via the Internet the ordinary individuals that live in other countries. How can you be persuaded to hate a nation when you know individuals from it and know that they are just like yourself? With the Internet, the people have a voice not just the governments.
Candle 6: The unity of Races
What applies for nations applies equally for races. We can now have friends in every country in the world and talk to people of every creed and colour. When you meet someone on the Internet you are not prejudiced by their colour or appearance because you do not see these things. You learn to know them from their thoughts, ideas and beliefs.
Candle 7: Unity of language
English is the de-facto language of the Internet, but this does not provide a barrier to anyone. A range of translation programs exist that allow anyone to view the Internet in their own language. The Internet - a common language for computers - is now helping people communicate without barriers.
Seeking the truth
So the Internet helps people around the world to communicate with each other, and not just government officials and business bosses. The BBC uses as its motto the phrase “Nation shall speak peace unto Nation” which sounds like prime ministers talking with presidents and kings. With the Internet, the peoples of the nations are talking to each other; and are doing so even when some of their governments don’t want them to.
We know what’s happening in some places not from journalists, who’ve been gagged by the authorities, but from ordinary citizens sending emails and posting weblogs. And people within these countries can find out what’s really happening in the world (as opposed to what their governments tell them) using the Internet. If governments want to deceive their peoples it’s now much harder for them to do so and that’s why oppressive regimes are trying to stop their people from using the Internet to discover the truth for themselves.
The right - and indeed the obligation - to discover the truth for ourselves is a central part of what Baha’is believe. The Internet helps us do that.
So whether people are opposing tyranny or swapping cake recipes, discussing the fate of nations or the weather; researching a cure for cancer or a solution to nose hair, the Internet helps them do it.
And when in 1936 the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith Shoghi Effendi wrote
“A mechanism of world inter-communication will be devised, embracing the whole planet, freed from national hindrances and restrictions, and functioning with marvellous swiftness and perfect regularity”
we suggest it may have been the Internet he was predicting.
Oh my God, aid Thou Thy servant to raise up the word, and to refute what is vain and false, to establish the truth, to spread the sacred verses abroad, reveal the splendours, and make the morning’s light to dawn in the hearts of the righteous. Thou art, verily, the Generous, the Forgiving.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá, from Bahá’í Prayers, p200