Mary Sutherland Maxwell was born on 8 August 1910 in the Hahnemann Hospital, later known as The Fifth Avenue Hospital, in New York City. She was the only child of May Bolles, one of the foremost disciples of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and Sutherland Maxwell, a distinguished Canadian architect, whose home in Montreal had long been known as a place of culture and spiritual vitality. When Mary was just seven months old, in March 1911, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote a Tablet to her mother, saying, “In the garden of existence a rose hath bloomed with the utmost freshness, fragrance and beauty. Educate her according to the divine teachings so that she may grow up to be a real Bahá’í and strive with all thy heart, that she may receive the Holy Spirit.” May took these injunctions to heart, striving to educate her precious, God-given daughter according to the divine teachings.
She had a full, free and happy childhood. Her only sorrows at this time, which she would speak of until late in life, were the periods of separation from her beloved mother. May Maxwell was a devoted and dedicated servant of the Cause, a member of several Bahá’í administrative bodies, as well as one of the star teachers of the Faith. She suffered greatly from the extreme cold of Montreal and her ill health would often keep her away from her home for two or more months at a time. She would go to New York or Wilmette to attend meetings, would become ill and then could not return home for several weeks. The physical attachment and spiritual kinship that connected mother and daughter was singular and strong. Rúhíyyih Khánum often said, “If Bahá’ís believed in such things as ‘soul mates’, my mother and I would be like that.”
‘Abdu’l-Bahá visited the Maxwell home for three days during the fall of 1912, when Mary was two years old. There is an especially touching story about this visit, told by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá Himself to His companions and recorded in the memoirs of A. A. Nakhjavani. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá told them: “Today I was resting on the chaise longue in my bedroom and the door opened. The little girl came in to me and pushed my eyelids up with her small finger and said, ‘Wake up, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá!’ I took her in my arms and placed her head on my chest and we both had a good sleep.” When Rúhíyyih Khánum repeated this story in later years she used to say that once when her mother complained to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá that she was naughty, the Master had said,
“Leave her alone. She is the essence of sweetness.”
The traditional educational methods of the time tended to be rigid and authoritarian, narrow-minded and dictatorial, and May was concerned to provide her daughter with the “freedom” which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had prescribed. For Mary’s early training, May established the first Montessori school in Canada in the Maxwell home. Mary also had a year of schooling in Montreal, a few months in Chevy Chase Country Day School in Maryland, another year in Weston High School in Montreal, and was tutored at home by governesses and private teachers. Later she became a part-time student at McGill University.
Despite these inconsistencies of education she was to become a well-read and knowledgeable person, with a consuming interest in a variety of subjects. Her thirst for acquiring knowledge was insatiable and throughout her life she clipped articles from the daily papers which caught her attention because they reflected Bahá’í themes or subjects of particular interest to her. And however arbitrary and independent may have been her formal intellectual education, there are clear indications that her spiritual training was pursued with rigour and unrelenting discipline. It was a training whose hallmark was love and whose main characteristic was obedience to the Covenant.
As the years of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s ministry were drawing to a close with WWI, and as a precursor to His Will and Testament, He sent the Tablets of the Divine Plan to the Bahá’í s of the West. Nine young girls were chosen to draw aside the curtains covering the original handwritten Tablets of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Mary Maxwell and her best childhood friend, Elizabeth Coristine of Montreal, were privileged to unveil the first and second of these Tablets for Canada in a tableau vivant at the Hotel McAlpin in New York on 29 April 1919. It was shortly before Mary’s ninth birthday and the end of the Heroic Age of the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh.
The passing of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, in November 1921, devastated the whole Bahá’í community. May Maxwell was so shattered and shaken in body and soul that she may have become a permanent invalid had not Mr. Maxwell convinced her to visit the Shrines in the Holy Land and meet the Guardian face to face. He thought Mary should go with her. They set sail from New York for the Holy Land, on 29 April 1923. This first pilgrimage left an indelible impression on her, and in later years she recalled, in a personal letter, how she was touched by “the spirit of service” she discovered in Haifa, saying “… a Queen or a beggar woman would be met with the same loving sweetness. Indeed it was this divine normality that really confirmed me here as a little girl of twelve years.”
This was the first time she met the Guardian, and she often described the meeting with a sweet pleasure in the remembrance. She and her mother were installed in the Old Western Pilgrim House at the end of Persian Street and May, who had not been able to walk for over a year, was resting in bed. Since her nights were frequently sleepless and her nerves delicate, Mary had learned from an early age to protect her from intrusion. She was in the hallway of the Pilgrim House when the door suddenly opened and a young man stepped in, with a swift, deft movement, and asked if he could see Mrs. Maxwell. She was a tall girl for her age, fully grown and physically well-developed. She said she pulled herself up to her full height and, looking him squarely in the eyes with considerable dignity and aplomb, asked to know who it was who wished to see Mrs. Maxwell. The young gentleman meekly replied, “I am Shoghi Effendi.” Upon which she turned tail and fled into her mother’s room in mortified embarrassment. Hiding her head, as she used to say “like a puppy”, beneath her mother’s pillows, she could only point to the door and gasp, “He – he – is there!” when her mother asked her what the matter was. And when May Maxwell found out who it was behind the door, she said, “Pull yourself together, Mary, and go and invite him in.”
When May returned to North America almost a year later, she was filled with joy and restored to health, redoubling her efforts in the teaching work and educating the friends in the Bahá’í Administration, in which Shoghi Effendi had carefully instructed her.
Two years later, Mary made a second pilgrimage, in the company of two of her mother’s friends. Back in Canada afterwards, she threw herself eagerly into all kinds of youth activities, both within the Bahá’í administration and elsewhere. Shortly before she was 16, she became a member of the Executive Committee of The Fellowship of Canadian Youth for Peace, serving as its Treasurer. From then on she was continuously involved in membership on committees and in her efforts to promote the cause of racial amity. Soon after she turned 21, she was elected to the Local Spiritual Assembly of Montreal.
Her training in oratory and public speaking began when she was almost 16. Increasingly, she began to accompany her mother on teaching trips, during which she had occasion not only to observe her mother’s manner of giving Bahá’í talks but also to learn how to lecture herself, in the Bahá’í spirit. Just before her nineteenth birthday, she spoke at the National Bahá’í Convention in a manner that touched many peoples’ hearts and minds. At the age of twenty, she delivered a lecture at the Friends’ Meeting House in New York City on “Mysticism in the Bahá’í Religion.” The other speakers at this Congress were all seasoned lecturers and famous orators, including Syud Hossain, the editor of “The New Orient,” who was billed as an “incomparable lecturer on the Orient, world peace and international relations.” After her lecture she received a standing ovation, and on that same day was given the following cable: “HEARTY CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR BEAUTIFUL CONSCIENTIOUS AND ABLE PRESENTATION OF A GREAT AND DIFFICULT THEME I AM HAPPY AND PROUD OF YOU—SYUD HOSSAIN”.
In addition to lecturing, she wrote books and plays and poetry, developing that diversity and range of skills that would serve to make of her a perfect instrument of service in the hands of her beloved Guardian, who noted her progress with keen interest. Her highest hope was to one day become an author. Her study of the translation of Nabíl’s Narrative, The Dawn-Breakers, which was encouraged by Shoghi Effendi, resulted in the article entitled ‘The Re-florescence of Historical Romance in Nabil’, later published in The Bahá’í World, Volume V (1932–34). The ardent, youthful enthusiasm that it reveals must have informed the lectures she gave on the Heroic Age of the Cause in Montreal, Green Acre, Louhelen, and Esslingen in Germany.
Shoghi Effendi closely followed the development and spiritual training of this remarkable young woman, writing to May Maxwell:
I feel that she should, while pursuing her studies, devote her energies to an intensive study of, & vigorous service to, the Cause, of which I hope & trust she will grow to become a brilliant and universally honoured exponent. I am sure, far from feeling disappointed or hurt at my suggestion, she will redouble in her activities & efforts to approach & attain the high standard destined for her by the beloved Master. Your plan of travelling with her throughout Canada in the service of the Cause is a splendid one & highly opportune. Kindly assure her & her dear father of my best wishes & prayers for their happiness welfare & success.
Your true & affectionate brother,
In May 1933, Mary spent several weeks in Washington, D.C., teaching the Faith and concentrating her efforts on finding ways to draw the two opposing races together, for the cause of racial unity was close to her heart and the rights and responsibilities of both races was a subject that touched her keenly throughout her life. She also attended official functions with her father in Montreal during her early twenties, meeting the Governor General of Canada at events such as the Royal Canadian Academy’s Fifty-Fourth Exhibition. This balance between her obligations to the Bahá’í community in particular and society at large served her well in later years. She always had the ability to mingle with officialdom and humble folk with equal ease; her support of local Bahá’í teaching work as well as social issues at the international level was equally enthusiastic throughout her life.
She very much wanted to learn Spanish, but when, in 1935, civil war threatened her plans to go to Spain, she was induced to accompany her cousins Jeanne and Randolph Bolles to Germany, where she taught and helped the Bahá’ís for the next year and a half, while May spent most of her time in France and Belgium. She became enamoured of the country and learned the language with fluency.
At the end of their extended stay in Europe, she and her mother received a warm invitation to come to the Holy Land. In a letter addressed to Mary Maxwell in late January 1936, the Guardian’s secretary wrote:
Before your coming to Haifa Shoghi Effendi would advise you to visit the centers in Germany and if possible to extend your trip to Austria and the Balkans where we have now a chain of active and prosperous communities that link the Western with the Eastern part of Europe. He would even suggest that you follow that route when you come to Haifa, as this would be of great interest to you, and of invaluable encouragement to the friends in these new and somewhat isolated centers.
Shoghi Effendi added, in his postscript:
Dear and valued co-worker:
I wish to assure you in person of a hearty welcome to visit the Holy Land and lay your head on the sacred Threshold after having rendered valuable services in the Faith in both America and Europe. For those you have asked me to pray, in your letters, I will supplicate the blessings of Bahá’u’lláh. Rest assured. Your true brother,
Mary Maxwell fulfilled the Guardian’s injunctions, travelling to every community in Germany and meeting every isolated believer, group, or Assembly. By the time she had accomplished this task, a year had passed and the rumblings of war were upon them. It was impossible now to travel through the Balkans or Austria, and she and her mother were then urged by Shoghi Effendi to come to the Holy Land directly.
One day during this pilgrimage, which began in 12 January 1937, another chapter opened in the life of Mary Maxwell when the mother of Shoghi Effendi told May Maxwell of Shoghi Effendi’s offer of marriage to her daughter.
The wedding took place on 24 March 1937, in Haifa, and it was on this occasion that the beloved Guardian gave her the name Rúhíyyih Khánum. In The Priceless Pearl, she described her wedding day, when she went with Shoghi Effendi to Bahjí, saying, “I remember I was dressed, except for a white lace blouse, entirely in black for this unique occasion, and was a typical example of the way oriental women dressed to go out into the streets in those days, the custom being to wear black.” The ring, which was a simple Bahá’í ring in the shape of a heart, had been given to her the day Shoghi Effendi proposed. He had asked her then to wear it on a chain around her neck, and on the day of their marriage, in the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh, he took it from her and put it on her finger himself. It was a ring that had been given to Shoghi Effendi by the Greatest Holy Leaf, and Rúhíyyih Khánum later had one made exactly like it for the beloved Guardian. They were both buried with their rings on their fingers. After the recital of the marriage vow in the room of the Greatest Holy Leaf, the mother of Shoghi Effendi placed Rúhíyyih Khánum’s hand in the hand of her son, according to the old Persian tradition of dast be dast.
News of the marriage electrified the Bahá’í world, both in the East and the West. Cables composed by the Guardian and signed by his mother were sent to the National Spiritual Assembly of Iran and the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States and Canada. The one to the West, dated 27 March 1937, read as follows:
ANNOUNCE ASSEMBLIES CELEBRATION MARRIAGE BELOVED GUARDIAN STOP INESTIMABLE HONOUR CONFERRED UPON HANDMAID OF BAHA’U’LLAH RUHIYYIH KHANUM MISS MARY MAXWELL STOP UNION OF EAST AND WEST PROCLAIMED BY BAHA’I FAITH CEMENTED.
(Signed) Ziaiyyih, mother of the Guardian.
For Rúhíyyih Khánum the period of adjustment that followed was a training time that could not have been easy. She was parted from her beloved parents, living a great distance from her familiar life in Montreal, and plunged into an oriental household together with all her in-laws under one roof. This must have been difficult for a young woman raised with a degree of freedom that was unusual even in the West at that time. Another difficulty was the language. Although the members of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s family all spoke English, they communicated with each other in Persian. It was only natural, when comments were passed and jokes were shared which she did not understand, that she would have felt left out. Were it not for her beloved, Rúhíyyih Khánum may well have been bereft.
But there were greater tests than mere loneliness and far greater trials than cultural isolation. In those early years of her marriage, one by one, the Guardian’s family fell away from faithfulness, until she was alone in that house at the side of her beloved. “Shoghi Effendi held me tight under his protective arms,” she used to say, and she, in turn, became his shield and his sole support. It was also during this turbulent period that Shoghi Effendi pulled her up short one day, and gesturing to her hand, said, “Your destiny is in the palm of your own hand.” This was a great shock for her and made her realize that she was not immune to her own tests of faith. “When Shoghi Effendi married me,” she used to say, “I felt safe and snug and thought I had nothing more to worry about, my destiny was in his hand. But when he said that, there it was, back in my own hand.” She would always make us laugh when she finished this very serious tale.
Her firmness in the Covenant, a manifestation of her deep faith, was her greatest protection in those early years of marriage. Perhaps the outpouring of her heart years later, in her poem “This is Faith”, written on April 4, 1954, exemplifies the depth of her understanding of this subject.
THIS IS FAITH
To walk where there is no path
To breathe where there is no air
To see where there is no light –
This is Faith.
To cry out in the silence,
The silence of the night,
And hearing no echo believe
And believe again and again –
This is Faith.
To hold pebbles and see jewels
To raise sticks and see forests
To smile with weeping eyes –
This is Faith.
To say: “God, I believe” when others deny,
“I hear” when there is no answer,
“I see” though naught is seen –
This is Faith.
And the fierce love in the heart,
The savage love that cries
Hidden Thou art yet there!
Veil Thy face and mute Thy tongue
Yet I see and hear Thee, Love,
Beat me down to the bare earth,
Yet I rise and love Thee, Love!
This is Faith.
A year after her marriage, Rúhíyyih Khánum wrote to her mother, “If anyone asked me what my theme was in life I should say, ‘Shoghi Effendi’.” It is clear from this that she had thrown herself with heart and soul into her destiny, and her task required a rigorous discipline. Under Shoghi Effendi’s strict tutelage she applied herself to conscientious study. Although she was an autodidact by nature and preferred to teach herself, rather than receive instruction—a habit she applied to many subjects in later life—he was, in effect, her principal teacher.
The reciprocity between Rúhíyyih Khánum and her parents was preserved despite the difficulties of distance and separation. She believed that service to the Cause performed by any one of them was a shared blessing for them all and of direct consequence to each, a theme echoed by May Maxwell in December 1939, when she wrote, “It is not only thru my passionate love for this great Bahá’í Faith, but thru my love for her, and yearning to be more worthy of her, that I have considered going to South America to teach.” And so it was that May Maxwell, seventy years old, with a weak heart and in very poor health, decided to make her supreme sacrifice. She arrived in Buenos Aires at the end of February, accompanied by her young niece, Jeanne Bolles, and the next day, on 1 March 1940, she died of a massive heart attack.
This was a terrible shock to Rúhíyyih Khánum. She received the devastating news from the Guardian, who told her, “Now I will be your mother” and comforted her with infinite compassion and patience. To Sutherland Maxwell, he cabled:
GRIEVED PROFOUNDLY YET COMFORTED ABIDING REALIZATION BEFITTING ONE SO NOBLE SUCH VALIANT EXEMPLARY SERVICE CAUSE BAHA’U’LLAH STOP RUHIYYIH THOUGH ACUTELY CONSCIOUS IRREPARABLE LOSS REJOICES REVERENTLY GRATEFUL IMMORTAL CROWN DESERVEDLY WON HER ILLUSTRIOUS MOTHER STOP ADVISE INTERMENT BUENOS AIRES STOP HER TOMB DESIGNED BY YOURSELF ERECTED BY ME SPOT SHE FOUGHT FELL GLORIOUSLY WILL BECOME HISTORIC CENTRE PIONEERS BAHA’I ACTIVITY STOP MOST WELCOME ARRANGE AFFAIRS RESIDE HAIFA STOP BE ASSURED DEEPEST LOVING SYMPATHY.
On 4 March, Rúhíyyih Khánum cabled the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada, saying:
HUMBLY GRATEFUL BELOVED MOTHER ANSWERED GUARDIAN’S CALL TURNED SOUTHWARD SACRIFICED LIFE HOLY FAITH. BEG PRAYERS DAUGHTER MAY FOLLOW HER FOOTSTEPS.
Mr. Maxwell joined the Guardian and Rúhíyyih Khánum in Rome in the summer of 1940, but their return to Palestine was prevented by the war. They did, however, manage to reach France and cross over to England on the last boat before the German army closed the borders. Eventually they were able to sail to South Africa and then travel north to the Holy Land via Egypt.
The war years were filled with activity and great achievements at the World Centre. During this period Shoghi Effendi commissioned Sutherland Maxwell to make the drawings for the superstructure of the Shrine of the Báb, and their love and collaboration was the greatest source of joy to Rúhíyyih Khánum. She used to say, “I really learned to know and appreciate my father through Shoghi Effendi.” Also during this time, Rúhíyyih Khánum assisted the beloved Guardian in the proofreading of his masterpiece, God Passes By.
One of the most outstanding services performed by Rúhíyyih Khánum during her twenty years at the side of the Guardian, was her role as his secretary, a task she undertook almost immediately after her marriage. From 1941, when she became Shoghi Effendi’s principal secretary in English, until 1957, she wrote thousands of letters on his behalf. She frequently described how Shoghi Effendi trained her to be a good secretary. In the early years, he would write down the points he wanted her to incorporate in pencil at the bottom of the letter he had received, but later on, when he saw how well she wrote, he would just tell her what to answer verbally. However, she always stressed the fact that he read every single letter she wrote for him before appending his own postscript. In later years, she wrote not only his personal letters but also his official correspondence with National Spiritual Assemblies.
Rúhíyyih Khánum told us that Shoghi Effendi encouraged her to write, and once, as she was copying her own favourite poems in a book, he asked to see them for himself. The next day he gave her book back saying, “I read them all. They are beautiful, they made me cry.” At Shoghi Effendi’s suggestion she wrote an article on the interment of the remains of the Purest Branch and his mother, Navváb, on Mt. Carmel next to the resting-place of the Greatest Holy Leaf, which was published in volume VIII of The Bahá’í World. His encouragement was also the main reason she wrote the book Prescription For Living. She often said she felt so sad for the young men who returned, confused and disillusioned, from World War II to a changed and unfamiliar world. She wanted to give them some light, some direction, and a way to see hope for the future.
In The Priceless Pearl Rúhíyyih Khánum refers to the war in the Holy Land prior to the formation of the State of Israel, as gunfire echoed between sea and mountain, while she remained calm in the heart of the storm with Shoghi Effendi as her example. After the formation of the State, the situation changed and Rúhíyyih Khánum enjoyed a degree of freedom that had not been possible for her before. Her social life became more varied and lively, and she gave wonderful dinner parties and soirées for the dignitaries of Haifa.
During the 1940’s her father became severely ill, and in 1950 it was decided that Mr. Maxwell should go to Canada with his Swiss nurse until the situation improved in Israel. When they parted at the end of that summer, it was the last time Rúhíyyih Khánum saw her dear father. He died two years later in Montreal.
When the first International Bahá’í Council was formed in 1951, Rúhíyyih Khánum was a member and its chosen liaison with the Guardian. Then, in 1952, after the passing of Sutherland Maxwell, Shoghi Effendi sent a cable dated March 26th to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States announcing that “mantle Hand Cause now falls shoulders his distinguished daughter Amatu’l Baha Ruhiyyih who already rendered still rendering manifold no less meritorious self sacrificing services World Centre Faith Bahá’u’lláh”. The following year, the Maxwell home in Montreal was declared a Shrine, marking not only the great gift bestowed by ‘Abdu’l-Baha on the Canadian Bahá’í community but also the unique services of William Sutherland, May and Mary Maxwell.
On 15 December 1952, the beloved Guardian announced that five Intercontinental Conferences would be held during the course of the Holy Year, and designated Rúhíyyih Khánum to be his representative at the one in Wilmette. She was, in his words, to
DELIVER MY OFFICIAL MESSAGE ASSEMBLED BELIEVERS ELUCIDATE CHARACTER PURPOSES IMPENDING DECADE LONG SPIRITUAL WORLD CRUSADE RALLY PARTICIPANTS ENERGETIC SUSTAINED ENTHUSIASTIC PROSECUTION COLOSSAL TASKS AHEAD.
She was also delegated by him to dedicate the Temple in North America on his behalf and
UNVEIL OCCASION COMPLETION CONSTRUCTION MOTHER TEMPLE WEST PRIVILEGED ATTENDANTS WILMETTE CONFERENCE MOST PRIZED REMEMBRANCE AUTHOR FAITH NEVER BEFORE LEFT SHORES HOLY LAND TO BE PLACED BENEATH DOME CONSECRATED EDIFICE STOP MOREOVER ASSIGNING HER TASK ACT MY DEPUTY HISTORIC CEREMONY MARKING OFFICIAL DEDICATION HOLIEST MASHRIQUL ADHKAR BAHAI WORLD REARED EVERLASTING GLORY HONOUR MOST GREAT NAME HEART NORTH AMERICAN CONTINENT [signed] SHOGHI
She had left North America eighteen years before, when she was a young Bahá’í and was known as the daughter of May Maxwell. Now she was returning as Amatu’l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum, the consort of the beloved Guardian and a Hand of the Cause of God. In Wilmette, she rose to speak like the queen she was, her delicate, gauzy mantilla framing her lovely young face, and even from the photographs it is easy to see how she would have made an unforgettable impression on the Bahá’ís, as well as on the non-Bahá’í seekers and distinguished speakers. After attending the 1953 Forty-fifth Annual Convention, the Bahá’í Dedication of the Temple, and the public Dedication the next day, she attended the All-America Intercontinental Conference from 3 to 6 May.
Then, accompanied by Amelia Collins, a Hand of the Cause and Vice-President of the International Bahá’í Council, Rúhíyyih Khánum went to Montreal to visit her father’s resting-place. A memorial gathering was held at the graveside on 10 May and that evening she spoke at a public meeting at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. While in Montreal, she also sorted out her parents’ belongings and, with Shoghi Effendi’s consent, shipped her personal furniture to the Master’s House in Haifa, where she created an exquisite library, which she used for special dinner parties, and a beautiful drawing room. In an act that pleased the Guardian immensely, she gave her Montreal home to the Faith, and it is now registered in the name of the National Spiritual Assembly of Canada.
In 1952, when some degree of safety and order was restored to Israel, Shoghi Effendi re-opened the opportunity for pilgrimage. Groups of nine pilgrims, from both the East and the West, began to arrive. To welcome them, to cater to their needs, and respond to their concerns was a task that consumed not only many hours of the Guardian’s time but those of Rúhíyyih Khánum, who planned and prepared the pilgrims’ meals in the face of great shortages of all kinds of essential foods in the post-war years.
In 1957, the beloved Guardian and Rúhíyyih Khánum left together for their summer vacation for the last time. The Guardian was very tired. As usual, he maintained all his correspondence and carried with him all his notes for his map of the Ten Year Crusade, which was approaching its mid-way point. In August that year he thrilled the Bahá’ís of the world with a two-fold message. The first part was the announcement of five Intercontinental Conferences to celebrate this mid-way point of the Crusade, and the second was his appointment of eight more Hands of the Cause in different continents. Everyone was filled with anticipation. Everyone looked forward to jubilation and celebration ahead. We in Uganda were thrilled beyond belief, for we had learned with awe and excitement that our precious Amatu’l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum had been designated by the beloved Guardian to represent him at the African Conference in Kampala. She was going to come to us!
And then, on 4 November, the cataclysmic news of Shoghi Effendi’s passing rocked the Bahá’í world. He had died in London, we heard in disbelief. The community that had for thirty-six years looked to him for guidance, for encouragement, for leadership and, above all, for his encompassing love, was bereft. There was no one to turn to but Amatu’l-Bahá, although she was the most forlorn of all at that time. It was up to her to take the next step to ascertain what should be done. The fulfilment of all the Guardian’s hopes and aspirations for the Ten Year Crusade became of uppermost importance to her. His good pleasure became the goal and object of her existence. From that moment to the end of her life her priorities never wavered.
In the face of her own immeasurable personal loss, it is remarkable to consider with what self-abnegation her heart turned to her fellow believers at that critical time of trial. All around her, friends were prostrate with grief, helpless with sorrow, leaving her to rise alone to the painful task in front of her, for the sake of her beloved Shoghi Effendi. She had to inform the Hands of the Cause and the Bahá’í world of this tragic event in such a manner as might lessen as much as possible the shock waves it was bound to cause. She had to tell the heart-broken believers to come to his funeral and bid their Guardian a last farewell. She went around London looking for a befitting burial ground and found it. She searched for a shroud and chose the casket and bought it. She saw to every detail in the sad days that followed. And the day after the funeral, when she was driving away from the graveside, she saw in her mind’s eye a vision of a column, an eagle and a globe, and she conceived the monument above his grave. She remembered how fond Shoghi Effendi had been of beautiful columns, and how he had said it was a pity that in his gardens there was no place for a single column. With this thought in mind, she designed the graceful column rising over his grave and placed the globe on it, surmounted by the symbol of his victories: the majestic eagle, with its wings open.
On 15 November Rúhíyyih Khánum arrived in Haifa, and three days later the first Conclave of the Hands of the Cause began in Bahjí. They searched for the will of Shoghi Effendi but did not find it, and so the Hands of the Cause informed the community that they must turn to the explicit directives in The Dispensation of Bahá’u’lláh, which Shoghi Effendi had referred to as his Will and Testament, to complete the goals of the Ten Year Crusade and to arrange for the election of the Universal House of Justice at the end of that period.
The Hands of the Cause were strong individuals from both the East and the West whose primary aim was to direct and hold together the affairs of the Cause of God. Amatu’l-Bahá played a vital role in their early Conclaves, serving as a bridge between cultures and languages – a Westerner imbued with Eastern understanding, whose horizons had been widened and stretched by Shoghi Effendi. Her deep sense of fairness and her ability to see clearly both sides of an argument facilitated the narrowing and negotiating of the gaps between the different Hands.
During that first year after Shoghi Effendi’s passing, Rúhíyyih Khánum spent most of her time in Bahj̤í and slept in the Mansion. Apart from carrying out all her heavy administrative duties, she threw herself into physical work, cleaning the Shrine and working in the gardens. She could not bear the emptiness and the loneliness of her apartment in Haifa. The next five or six years were perhaps the saddest and hardest in her entire life. But she demonstrated her own, immediate commitment to service when she accepted to attend the first of the series of the Intercontinental Bahá’í Conferences called by the beloved Guardian to mark and celebrate the mid-way point of the Ten Year Crusade. Initially, her grief was so intense that she did not want to go, but her fellow Hands convinced her that since it had been the wish of Shoghi Effendi, she must do so.
Although Rúhíyyih Khánum was in mourning and wore black for one year after Shoghi Effendi’s passing, she altered this custom for the duration of her trip to Africa. She told me afterwards that all her clothes for that Conference had been seen and approved by the Guardian the previous summer, and this was one of the reasons why she did not come to Kampala in mourning clothes. She also wanted to create a sense of jubilation during this Conference, the way Shoghi Effendi had anticipated it should be.
Over nine hundred people stood up in sorrowful awe as she entered the conference hall in Kampala on 24 January 1958. And then, four hundred African Bahá’ís raised their voices and began to sing “Alláh-u-Abhá”, softly and spontaneously. The air was so charged with love, so pent-up with emotion as Amatu’l-Bahá walked up the central aisle, that we were all shaken. When she stood before us to address the Conference, her voice broke and tears came to her eyes several times. But the waves of deep love and sympathy in that audience were tangible; they enveloped and caressed her, and at the end assuaged her sorrow. Her love for the Africans and their continent became a permanent part of her life afterwards. She brought to that Conference a wider perspective, a global outlook, an all-embracing point of view that we had been lacking, and she went back from it recharged with hope and courage to continue, travelling to different conferences and to the Dedications of both Mother Temples of Africa and Australasia during the Custodianship of the Hands.
In 1961, the election of the International Bahá’í Council took place. This precursor of the Universal House of Justice greatly assisted the Hands in the preparation for that first International Bahá’í Convention, and Rúhíyyih Khánum, who had been tasked by the Hands with the completion of the interior of the International Archives Building, turned for assistance to the Council’s younger members. Beautiful Chinese and Japanese furniture purchased by Shoghi Effendi during the last year of his life for the purpose of decorating and displaying the holy relics, had to be carefully arranged and meticulously prepared for their precious contents. Artistry, a sense of proportion, a strict adherence to the placement of the objects according to the priority of their importance—all these guided Amatu’l-Bahá in her task.
The conclusion of the Ten Year Crusade, in April of 1963, was crowned by the election of the long-awaited Universal House of Justice in Haifa. The election took place in the House of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, which had played such a significant role in the unfoldment of the Administrative Order of Bahá’u’lláh. To befittingly honour the occasion, Rúhíyyih Khánum had ordered thousands of roses and carnations to carpet the inner rooms of all three Shrines. She opened that International Bahá’í Convention and every successive one until that of April 1998. Then, after the election of the Supreme Body, Rúhíyyih Khánum and the Hands of the Cause of God rejoiced with 7,000 Bahá’ís in Albert Hall in London, England, at the first Bahá’í World Congress. Amatu’l-Bahá invited a number of indigenous Bahá’ís from Africa, South America and Australia to attend this historic event as her personal guests. Her deeply moving and thought-provoking talk on Shoghi Effendi’s life was a masterpiece of eloquence and poignancy, as we brought his Ten Year Crusade to its triumphal close.
Rúhíyyih Khánum’s systematic travels around the globe began in the year 1964. Many times, she talked about the genesis of these unique trips, recounting an incident in the lifetime of Shoghi Effendi. One day, as he was passing by her desk, he stopped and looked at her and said, “What will become of you after I die?” She was shattered by this unexpected remark and began to weep, saying, “Oh, Shoghi Effendi, don’t say such terrible things. I don’t want to live without you.” He paid no attention, however, and after a pause continued, “I suppose you will travel and encourage the friends.” She said that this was the only remark he ever made about what she should do with her life after his passing. And so it was that, when she was somewhat freed from her arduous administrative duties and the affairs of the Cause were placed under the infallible guidance of the Universal House of Justice, she took these words as his last instructions to her and did her utmost to fulfil his hopes.
In the course of her long life she travelled to 185 countries, dependencies and major islands of the globe. While she visited just 31 countries in her first 54 years, she travelled in all the rest between 1964 and 1997. When I tried to count the number of territories she visited in these 34 years, I came up with the astounding figure of 154. Many of these countries were visited more than once, and some, like India, were honoured by her presence as many as nine times. Her trips were of such a variety that the best way to look at them is through the range of activities that they involved.
Her role as Ambassador of the Bahá’í Faith, for example, was remarkable in itself. Everywhere she went she met with Heads of State and high-ranking authorities at the national, local or even village levels, moving with complete ease from one class of society to another. Although she herself was in every way queenly and worthy of honour and respect, she always approached these emblems of material power and political authority with deference and a natural humility. She would explain that her visit was in the nature of a courtesy call, and nothing more, stating that she had come from the World Centre of the Bahá’í Faith and was visiting the Bahá’ís in that country, who were a strictly a-political and non-partisan people, well-wishers of the government and obedient to its laws. In all her encounters, she strove to be positive and looked for every opportunity to offer praise and appreciation in her dealings with state officials, even if very little was called for.
In Africa alone she met with seventeen Heads of State and was instrumental in helping the Bahá’ís achieve many of their legal goals. The highest in rank and the leader she most valued meeting in all her travels was Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. She greatly admired his nobility, his courage and his uprightness. The Head of State whose meeting brought her the greatest joy and pride was His Highness Malietoa Tanumafili II of Western Samoa, the first ruling monarch to embrace the Cause of Bahá’u’lláh.
She always maintained a high standard of propriety, and when she shared the platform or sat at dinner with such people as Prince Philip of Great Britain or the Archbishop of Canterbury, with Governors-General and Ambassadors, she invariably won their admiration and respect, not only for herself but most importantly for the Cause of Bahá’u’lláh. This was her ultimate concern. Rúhíyyih Khánum truly had no personal ambition; she was not in the least interested in meeting or moving in such company for its own sake or her pleasure. It was only for the Cause that she would accept any appointments and invitations of this kind.
Another activity which she undertook in the course of her many travels was contact with the representatives of the media. She must have had hundreds of newspaper, radio and television interviews, in the capital cities around the world as well as in the large and small towns of every country she visited. Before going to meet a journalist or be filmed in a studio she would always pray and ask for God’s guidance, His assistance and, above all, His protection. She used to tell the friends that when they met the representatives of the media, their principal aim should be to create a good impression of the Faith. “If these people only remember one thing, that the word ‘Bahá’í’ means something good, you have achieved your purpose,” she used to say.
Another vital service rendered by Amatu’l-Bahá in the course of her many travels was her role as the representative of the Universal House of Justice at national and international Bahá’í Conferences across the planet. Standing on platforms on behalf of the Sacred Institution she served, in the course of Bahá’í Conventions at Ridván, at youth conferences and Native gatherings, at inaugurations of Bahá’í Temples and other great historical events to which the Bahá’ís streamed from all the quarters of the globe, she was erect and regal and forever memorable, the essence of dignity and beauty. Her mastery of just the right word on each of these occasions, her ability to draw out her audience and touch people’s hearts, her clear and simple logic, and, above all, her wit and her bewitching sense of humour—these qualities endeared her to and charmed her audiences. When asked, she attributed her power of public speaking to the fact that at the beginning of her marriage Shoghi Effendi had recommended that she memorize the beautiful prayer of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá which begins, “O Lord, my God and my Haven in my distress! My shield and my Shelter in my woes! …” and which concludes with the poignant sentence: “Loose my tongue to laud Thy name amidst Thy people, that my voice may be raised in great assemblies and from my lips may stream the flood of thy praise.” She also attributed it to the advice given by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to May Maxwell, to turn her heart to Him, pray, and then speak, for Rúhíyyih Khánum herself followed this advice faithfully. She gave talks with the same degree of resourcefulness in French, in German, and in Persian.
One of the most memorable services in the course of Amatu’l-Bahá’s many travels was the time she spent and the attention she gave to perfectly ordinary people in the peripheries of society. When asked what was her favourite spot, she would often say that it was in the villages and jungles of the world. She rarely missed the opportunity to validate people in far flung and remote places whom few had heard of and whose simple actions none might ever know.
How often in the course of these forty years by her side did I witness shy, unsure, sometimes dejected human beings uplifted by her genuine kindness, her praise and patience. Her instinct was to approach people with an open, candid heart, simply and unself-consciously. It was to look for positive qualities in people and verbalize these. But though she was the perfect diplomat in some respects, she was also very direct and often said things frankly and outspokenly. The driving impulse in all her encounters with the Bahá’ís was to stir them to action and rouse them up so that they would teach the Faith. And often, even when she was critical of individuals, her intent was to protect the Cause. If her manner may at times have appeared abrupt, and initially formidable to those who approached her, it was often the result of her own innate shyness, which few people guessed, for she was disconcerted, to the end of her life, by effusiveness and adulation.
Seldom did Rúhíyyih Khánum travel, especially on her longer trips, without a pet. Her love for animals was such that she would gladly accept the extra hardship of tending and cleaning her pets for the simple joy of their company. Her motto was, “You only live once; why not get clean joy out of it?”
Rúhíyyih Khánum was one of the most hardworking human beings that I have ever met, and she never asked anyone to do anything that she had not or could not also have done herself. Much of her hard work was centred on her home in Haifa, which was the hub of continuous activity until the last two and a half years of her life. She kept a regular entourage around her as busy as herself and trained them rigorously in the arts of practical maintenance.
Her first and foremost concern was always the upkeep and care of the Shrines. Her constant reminder was to keep these precious Holy Shrines exactly the way Shoghi Effendi had arranged them. “This is not a place of innovation, but preservation” was her advice to all. She also undertook periodically to inspect and keep all the Holy Places in order, framing pictures, replacing the frayed and worn out fabrics, keeping an eagle eye on any deviation from the Guardian’s ways. The renovation and furnishing of the House of ‘Abdu’lláh Páshá engrossed her interest for several years.
One of Amatu’l-Bahá’s important social activities in Haifa was her role as hostess. She loved setting a beautiful table, arranging flowers and overseeing every detail of the event. Apart from formal dinners, she would also give many informal parties. After returning from India, every now and then she would be so homesick for that country that she would throw an “Indian Night” party. She would dress the few ladies working at that time in Haifa in her beautiful saris, trace the floors with exquisite patterns made of coloured flour, play Indian music, and we would all enjoy delicious, spicy Indian food under her hospitable roof. And also do the cleaning up with her afterwards! Or there were her exciting “African Nights” when all the friends who were either African or connected to the work in Africa were invited to her home, usually outside in her beautiful garden, and after a scrumptious dinner would drum and sing to their hearts’ content. How exhilarating were her dinner parties for the new Counsellors, too, where the guests, numbering over 90 at times, were squeezed into the main hall, as she would say, “with a shoe horn.” Many hundreds of the friends who met Amatu’l-Bahá on her travels, enjoyed her delightful hospitality and loving attention when visiting Haifa.
There was, of course, a stream of regular nine-day pilgrims with whom she also met, twice a month for nine months of the year. This was a custom and responsibility which went back to her earliest years at the side of Shoghi Effendi, and which she dutifully maintained until the last years of her life. She met with about 2000 pilgrims each year in the main hall of the Master’s House, giving talks that provided guidance and inspiration for many. She also kept up a voluminous correspondence, encouraging institutions and individuals and responding to questions and requests.
Two particular events at the World Centre stand out, during which many hundred of pilgrims flocked through the doors of the Master’s House. In 1968, the Centenary of the arrival of Bahá’u’lláh in the Holy Land brought two thousand Bahá’ís to Haifa and ‘Akká, and in 1992 three thousand Bahá’ís came for the commemoration of the Centenary of the passing of Bahá’u’lláh. On the afternoon of 28 May at Bahjí, they witnessed Amatu’l-Bahá place the cylinder containing the Roll of Honour of the Knights of Bahá’u’lláh at the entrance of the Most Holy Shrine. On the night of Bahá’u’lláh’s Ascension, after a devotional program in the Haram-i-Aqdas, we all circumambulated the Shrine, which Rúhíyyih Khánum had carpeted with thousands of rose buds and carnations.
When one contemplates the fullness of her days and years, many of which were spent in travel, one is filled with wonder at how she managed to do so much writing. Throughout the years Amatu’l-Bahá penned The Priceless Pearl, Manual for Pioneers, The Desire of the World, The Ministry of the Custodians, and Poems of the Passing, an outpouring of her broken heart after the death of Shoghi Effendi, which was printed in 1996. Furthermore, her legacy also includes the production of two important films. The first, her two-hour documentary film “The Green Light Expedition,” was the fruit of her six months’ journey in 1975 through the Amazon Basin, the Peruvian and Bolivian altiplano, to the Bush Negroes of Suriname. Her second film, “The Pilgrimage”, offers a visual pilgrimage to the Bahá’í Holy Places in Haifa and ‘Akká, with Amatu’l-Bahá as guide.
Rúhíyyih Khánum touched and filled the lives of numerous people everywhere around the world, but the primary source of her comfort and happiness in the last decades of her life was her love for the Universal House of Justice and her bond with this Institution and its individual members. When all nine members of the Universal House of Justice came to her home for the last time three weeks before her passing and paid their respects, when she was quite frail and in bed, such a deep sense of happiness and contentment enveloped her that it was tangible, like sunlight, in the room after they left. She lingered quietly in that light a moment, and then said, “I felt their love; they are my closest friends.” This bond, which symbolized her total dedication to the Covenant throughout her life, was strong and vibrant to the end – and always reciprocal.
Her funeral was held in the central hall of the Master’s House. The two Hands of the Cause were present, together with members of the Universal House of Justice, the International Teaching Centre Counsellors, and twenty-four Continental Counsellors from all over the world. Also attending were her family members and representatives from seventy-six National Spiritual Assemblies, senior officials from the Canadian and United States embassies, representatives of the Israeli government, the mayors of Haifa and ‘Akká, other prominent Israeli citizens, and a number of special invited guests. Following the readings and the chanting of the Prayer for the Dead, she left for the last time that house which she had entered as a bride sixty-three years before. Her coffin was carried out by members of the Universal House of Justice, then borne across the street and lowered into its vault by believers representing a variety of ethnic origins. Almost one thousand people, including pilgrims and volunteers serving at the Bahá’í World Centre, stood outside her home, in the closed-off street, and in the garden where her grave had been prepared. The interior of the grave was carpeted on all sides with hundreds of roses and carnations, just as she had arranged for her beloved Shoghi Effendi forty-two years before. And as the rain poured down, more prayers were recited and chanted before her casket was lowered into the ground. The rainstorm that had begun on the night she passed away finally subsided to a drizzle as her precious remains were laid to rest.
I think, to sum up such a life, there are no adequate words but those expressed in the message of the Universal House of Justice to the Bahá’í world after her passing:
19 January 2000
To the Bahá’ís of the World
In the early hours of this morning, the soul of Amatu’l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum, beloved consort of Shoghi Effendi and the Bahá’í world’s last remaining link with the family of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, was released from the limitations of this earthly existence. In the midst of our grief, we are sustained by our confidence that she has been gathered to the glory of the Concourse on High in the presence of the Abhá Beauty.
For all whose hearts she touched so deeply, the sorrow that this irreparable loss brings will, in God’s good time, be assuaged in awareness of the joy that is hers through her reunion with the Guardian and with the Master, Who had Himself prayed in the Most Holy Shrine that her parents be blessed with a child. Down the centuries to come, the followers of Bahá’u’lláh will contemplate with wonder and gratitude the quality of the services—ardent, indomitable, resourceful—that she brought to the protection and promotion of the Cause.
In her youth, Amatu’l-Bahá had already distinguished herself through her activities in North America, and later, both with her dear mother and on her own, she had rendered valuable service to the Cause in Europe. Her twenty years of intimate association with Shoghi Effendi evoked from his pen such accolades as “my helpmate”, “my shield”, “my tireless collaborator in the arduous tasks I shoulder.” To these tributes he added in 1952 his decision to elevate her to the rank of Hand of the Cause of God, after the death of her illustrious father.
The devastating shock of the beloved Guardian’s passing steeled her resolve to lend her share, with the other Hands of the Cause, to the triumph of the Ten Year Crusade, and subsequently to undertake, with characteristic intrepidity, her historic worldwide travels.
A life so noble in its provenance, so crucial to the preservation of the Faith’s integrity, and so rich in its dedicated, uninterrupted and selfless service, moves us to call for befitting commemorations by Bahá’í communities on both national and local levels, as well as for special gatherings in her memory in all Houses of Worship.
With yearning hearts, we supplicate at the Holy Threshold for infinite heavenly bounties to surround her soul, as she assumes her rightful and well-earned position among the exalted company in the Abhá Kingdom.
The Universal House of Justice
Not the least of the treasures which Bahá’u’lláh has given to the world is the wealth of His prayers and meditations. He not only revealed them for specific purposes, such as the Daily Prayers, the prayers for Healing, for the Fast, for the Dead, and so on, but in them He revealed a great deal of Himself to us. At moments it is as if, in some verse or line, we are admitted into His Own heart, with all its turbulent emotions, or catch a glimpse of the workings of a mind as great and deep as an ocean, which we can never fathom, but which never ceases to enrapture and astonish us.
If one could be so presumptuous as to try and comment on a subject so vast and which, ultimately, is far beyond the capacity of any merely mortal mind to analyse or classify, one might say that one of His masterpieces is the long prayer for the Nineteen Day Fast. I do not know if He revealed it at dawn, but He had, evidently, a deep association with that hour of the day when the life of the world is repoured into it. How could He not have? Was He not the Hermit of Sar-Galú, where He spent many months in a lonely stone hut perched on a hilltop; the sunrise must have often found Him waiting and watching for its coming, His voice rising and falling in the melodious chants of His supplications and compositions. At how many dawns He must have heard the birds of the wilderness wake and cry out when the first rays of the sun flowed over the horizon and witnessed in all its splendor the coming alive of creation after the night.
In this prayer it is as if the worshipper approaches the sun while the sun is approaching its daybreak. When one remembers that the sun, the lifegiver of the earth, has ever been associated with the God Power, and that Bahá’u’lláh has always used it in His metaphors to symbolize the Prophet, the prayer takes on a mystical significance that delights and inspires the soul. Turning to the budding day He opens His supplication:
“I beseech Thee, O my God, by Thy mighty Sign (the Prophet), and by the revelation of Thy grace amongst men, to cast me not away from the gate of the city of Thy presence, and to disappoint not the hopes I have set on the manifestations of Thy grace amidst Thy creatures.” Who has not, in order to better visualize himself in relation to the Kingdom of God, seen his own soul as a wanderer, weary and hopeful, standing at the Gates of the Heavenly City and longing for admittance? The worshipper gazes at the brightening sky in the east and waits, expectant of the mercy of God. He hears the “most sweet Voice” and supplicates that by the “most exalted Word” he may draw ever nearer the threshold of God’s door and enter under the shadow of the canopy of His bounty—a canopy which is already spreading itself, in mighty symbolic form, over the world in crimson, gold, and gray clouds.
The day waxes; the oncoming sun, in the prayer of Bahá’u’lláh, becomes the face of God Himself to which He turns, addressing words of infinite sweetness and yearning: “I beseech Thee, O my God, by the splendor of Thy luminous brow and the brightness of the light of Thy countenance, which shineth from the all-highest horizon, to attract me, by the fragrance of Thy raiment, and make me drink of the choice wine of Thine utterance.”
The soft winds of dawn, which must have often played over His face and stirred His black locks against His cheek, may have given rise to this beautiful phrase in His prayer: “I beseech Thee, O my God, by Thy hair which moveth across Thy face, even as Thy most exalted pen moveth across the pages of Thy tablets, shedding the musk of hidden meanings over the kingdom of Thy creation, so to raise me up to serve Thy Cause that I shall not fall back, nor be hindered by the suggestions of them who have cavilled at Thy signs and turned away from Thy face.” How deep, how poetical, how sincere are His words! The playing of the strands of hair recall to Him the fine tracing of the Persian script, revealing words from God that shed a divine fragrance in the lives of men. But that is not all. In His communion all the love and loyalty of His heart is roused, He supplicates to be made of the faithful, whom naught shall turn aside from the Path that leads them to their Lord.
The sun has risen, as if in answer to the cry of the worshipper to “enable me to gaze on the Day-Star of Thy Beauty. …” And as he continues his prayer it seems as if all nature were moving in harmony with it: “I beseech Thee, O my God, by the Tabernacle of Thy majesty on the loftiest summits, and the Canopy of Thy Revelations on the highest hills, to graciously aid me to do what Thy will hath desired and Thy purpose hath manifested.” North and south the glory spreads, a faint echo of that celestial beauty visible to the eye of Baha’u’llah and which He says: “shineth forth above the horizon of eternity.” So deeply does it penetrate the heart that it evokes the desire to “die to all that I possess and live to whatsoever belongeth unto Thee,” The soul is moved; all earthly things pale before the vision which, as symbolized in the sunrise, it beholds in the inner world; God, the “Well-beloved” seems to have drawn very near.
The winds flit over the land; some tree calls to the Prophet’s mind, as it shivers and stirs, the Tree of Himself that over-shadows all mankind: “I beseech Thee, O my God, by the rustling of the Divine Lote-Tree and the murmur of the breezes of Thine utterance in the kingdom of Thy names, to remove me far from whatsoever Thy will abhorreth, and draw me nigh unto the station wherein He who is the Day-Spring of Thy signs hath shone forth.” Bahá’u’lláh puts the words into our mouths whereby we may draw nigher to God and receive from Him the heavenly gifts: “I beseech Thee … to make known unto me what lay hid in the treasuries of Thy knowledge and concealed within the repositories of Thy wisdom.” “I beseech Thee … to number me with such as have attained unto that which Thou hast sent down in Thy Book and manifested through Thy will.” “I beseech Thee … to write down for me what Thou hast written down for Thy trusted ones. …”
And finally, in words designed for those countless worshippers for whom He wrote this glorious Fasting Prayer, He asks God to “ write down for every one who hath turned unto Thee, and observed the fast prescribed by Thee, the recompense decreed for such as speak not except by Thy leave, and who forsook all chat they possessed in Thy path and for love of Thee.” He asks that the silence of the good may descend upon them-both the silence and the speech of chose who are wholly dedicated to that Divine Will which alone can lead men to their highest destiny. The last thought of all is that those who have obeyed the decrees of God may be forgiven their trespasses.
This majestic prayer is composed of fourteen verses, each opening with the words “I beseech Thee …” and closing with the same refrain: “Thou seest me, O my God, holding to Thy Name, the Most Holy, the Most Luminous, the Most Mighty, the Most Great, the Most Exalted, the Most Glorious, and clinging to the hem of the robe to which have clung all in this world and in the world to come.” The rhythmical emphasis on the thoughts contained in these words is not only very powerful but very artistic—if one may borrow the term for lack of a better one–and the sense that all creatures living, and chose gone before into the invisible realms of God, are clinging to the skirt of His mercy, dependent on Him and Him alone, exerts a profound influence on one’s mind, particularly so when taken in conjunction with what one beholds at this hour of the day: The sky kindling with light, the brush of the wind gently over the face of nature; the whole world waking to the casks of living on all sides; all things dependent on God; they always have and they always will be. This is a little of what this long prayer conveys to the those who partake of it.
Another unique prayer of Bahá’u’lláh is His congregation prayer for the Dead. His Revelation throughout has aimed at doing away with every form of ritual; He has abolished priesthood; forbidden ceremonials, in the sense of church services with a set form; reduced the conduct of marriages to a naked simplicity, with a minimum uniform rite required of those concerned. The one exception to this general policy is the Prayer for the Dead, portions of which are repeated while all present are standing. Prayers such as this and the one for the Fast, can never be properly appreciated by merely reading them. They are living experiences. The difference is as great as looking at a brook while you are not thirsty, and drinking from it when you are. If you lose some one you love and then read aloud the glorious words, you come to know what “living waters” are:
“This is Thy servant … deal with him, O Thou Who forgivest the sins of men and concealest their faults, as beseemeth the heaven of Thy bounty and the ocean of Thy grace. Grant him admission within the precincts of Thy transcendent mercy that was before the foundation of earth and heaven. …” Simple words, words which follow our loved one out into the spaces where we may not follow. But the profound experience of this prayer is in the refrain, each sentence of which is repeated 19 times. “We all, verily, worship God. We all, verily, bow down before God. We all, verily, are devoted unto God. We all, verily, give praise unto God. We all, verily, yield thanks unto God. We all, verily, are patient in God.”
The very strength of the prayer is in the repetition. It is so easy to say just once, “We … bow down before God” or “We yield thanks unto God” or “We are patient in God”; the words slip off our minds swiftly and leave them much as before. But when we say these things over and over, they sink very deep, they go down into the puzzled, the rebellious, the grief stricken or numbly resigned heart and stir it with healing powers; reveal to it the wisdom of God’s decrees, seal it with patience in His ways,—ways which run the stars in their courses smoothly and carry us on to our highest good.
No form of literature in the whole world is less objective than prayers. They are things of motion, not of repose. They are speeches addressed to a Hearer; they are medicine applied to a wound; they stir the worshipper and set something in his heart at work. That is their whole purpose. Teachings, discourses, even meditations, can be read purely objectively and critically, but the man who can read a real prayer in the cold light of reason alone, has indeed strayed far from his own innate human nature, for all men, everywhere, at every period in their evolution, have possessed the instinct of supplication, the necessity of calling out to something, some One, greater than themselves, whether in their abasement it was a stone image, thunder or fire, or, in their glory, the invisible God of all men that they called upon, the instinct was there just as deeply.
Many wonderful prayers exist in all languages and all religions; but the prayers of Bahá’u’lláh possess a peculiar power and richness all their own. He calls upon God in terms of the greatest majesty, of the deepest feeling; sometimes with awe; sometimes with pathos; sometimes in a voice of such exultation that we can only wonder what transpired within his soul at such moments. He uses figures of speech that strike the imagination, stir up new concepts of the Divinity and expand infinitely our spiritual horizons. Much, no doubt, of their perfection is lost in translation as He often employed the possibilities and peculiarities of the Arabic and Persian languages to their fullest. Some of His prayers, following the style of the Súrihs of the Qur’án, end every sentence in rhyme—though they are not poems—and the custom of alliterating words, thus imparting a flowing sense of rhythm to the sentences, is very often resorted to in all His writings, including His prayers. Nevertheless the original charm and beauty pervades the translations and none of the lyric quality of the following prayer seems to have been lost. It rises like a beautiful hymn which lifts the soul on wings of song:
“From the sweet-scented streams of Thine eternity give me to drink, O my God, and of the fruits of the tree of Thy being enable me to taste, O my Hope! From the crystal springs of Thy love suffer me to quaff, O my Glory, and beneath the shadow of Thine everlasting providence let me abide, O my Light! Within the meadows of Thy nearness, before Thy presence, make me able to roam, O my Beloved, and at the right hand of the throne of Thy mercy, seat me, O my Desire! From the fragrant breezes of Thy joy let a breath pass over me, O my Goal, and into the heights of the paradise of Thy reality let me gain admission, O my Adored One! To the melodies of the dove of Thy oneness suffer me to hearken, O Resplendent One, and through the spirit of Thy power and Thy might quicken me, O my Provider! In the spirit of Thy love keep me steadfast, O my Succorer, and in the path of Thy good pleasure set firm my steps, O my Maker! Within the garden of Thine immortality, before Thy countenance, let me abide for ever, O Thou Who art merciful unto me, and upon the seat of Thy glory stablish me, O Thou Who art my Possessor! To the heaven of Thy loving-kindness lift me up, O my Quickener, and unto the Daystar of Thy guidance lead me, O Thou my Attractor! Before the revelations of Thine invisible spirit summon me to be present, O Thou Who art my Origin and my Highest Wish, and unto the essence of the fragrance of Thy beauty, which Thou wilt manifest, cause me to return, O Thou Who art my God!
“Potent art Thou to do what pleaseth Thee. Thou art, verily, the Most Exalted, the All-Glorious, the All-Highest.”
At times Bahá’u’lláh put words into the mouth of the worshipper according to his need: He writes a supplication for a child, for one who is ill, one who is sad, one who is pregnant, one who is a sinner, one who pours forth his heart to God—capturing the whole gamut of human emotions in His various communions. But at times it is obvious the prayer is His own. We read it, but we cannot be the speaker, or mortal feet cannot tread the path that lay between His soul—the soul of the Prophet Himself—and the God Who sent Him here among men to labor and suffer for them. “I know not,” He declares, “what the water is with which Thou hast created me, or what the fire Thou hast kindled within me, or the clay wherewith Thou hast kneaded me. The restlessness of every ocean hath been stilled, but not the restlessness of this Ocean which moveth at the bidding of the words of Thy will. The flame of every fire hath been extinguished, except the Flame which the hands of Thine omnipotence have kindled, and whose radiance Thou hast, by the power of Thy name, shed abroad before all that are in Thy heaven and that are on Thy earth. As the tribulations deepen, it waxeth hotter and hotter.” The Holy fire that burned within His being is not for us, frail creatures that we are, to comprehend. We can only gaze into its heart and marvel at its shifting hues and beauty, much as we marvel at the flames that leap and dance on our own hearth fires, though we may not approach or touch them.
Bahá’u’lláh exalts the being and nature of God, in His addresses to Him, as no other Prophet ever has. He defines His relation to Him; He gives us glimpses of the forces surging within His soul; He lay bare the emotions that stir within His turbulent breast. In words of honey He cries out: “Thou beholdest, O my God, how every bone in my body soundeth like a pipe with the music of Thine inspiration. …” A love far beyond our ken burns in His heart for the One God who sent Him down amongst men: “Thou seest, O Thou Who art my All-Glorious Beloved, the restless waves that surge within the ocean of my heart in my love for Thee. …” “Thou art, verily, the Lord of Bahá and the Beloved of his heart, and the Object of his desire, and the Inspirer of his tongue, and the Source of his Soul.” “Lauded be Thy name, O Thou Who art my God and throbbest within my heart!” “O would that they who serve Thee could taste what I have tasted of the sweetness of Thy love!” How keenly His soul thrilled with appreciation for the aid that poured into His inmost being from the Invisible Source: “Were I to render thanks unto Thee for the whole continuance of Thy kingdom and the duration of the heaven of Thine omnipotence, I would still have failed to repay Thy manifold bestowals.” How ardent is His gratitude to His Lord for raising Him up to serve His fellowmen: “How can I thank Thee for having singled me out and chosen me above all Thy servants to reveal Thee, at a time when all have turned away from Thy beauty!”
Ever and again He confesses His readiness, nay, His eagerness, to bear every trial and hardship for the sake of shedding the light of God upon this darkened world, and in order to demonstrate the greatness of the love He feels for His Creator: “I yield Thee thanks for that Thou hast made me the target of diverse tribulations and manifold trials in order that Thy servants may be endued with new life and all Thy creatures may be quickened.” “I yield Thee thanks, O my God, for that Thou hast offered me up as a sacrifice in Thy path … and singled me out for all manner of tribulation for the regeneration of Thy people.” “I swear by Thy glory! I have accepted to be tried by manifold adversities for no purpose except to regenerate all that are in Thy heaven and on Thy earth.” “How sweet is the thought of Thee in times of adversity and trial, and how delightful to glorify Thee when compassed about by the fierce winds of Thy decree.” “Every hair of my head proclaimeth: ‘But for the adversities that befall me in Thy path how could I ever taste the divine sweetness of Thy tenderness and love?’”
With what passion and majesty He testifies to the unquenchable power and purpose of His Lord—the Lord Whom He called His “Fire” and His “Light”—which burned within His breast: “Were all that are in the heavens and all that are on the earth to unite and seek to hinder me from remembering Thee and from celebrating Thy praise, they would assuredly … fail … And were all the infidels to slay me, my blood would … lift up its voice and proclaim: ‘There is no God but Thee, O Thou Who Art all my heart’s desire!’ And were my flesh to be boiled in the cauldron of hate, the smell which it would send forth would rise towards Thee and cry out: ‘Where art Thou, O Lord of the Worlds, the One Desire of them that have known Thee!’ And were I to be cast into fire, my ashes would—I swear by Thy glory—declare: ‘The Youth hath, verily, attained that for which he had besought His Lord the All-Glorious, the Omniscient.’”
Reading such testimonials that sprang in moments of who knows what exaltation?—from the heart of the prophet, we cannot but marvel at the mighty and strange bond that binds such a Being to the Source of all power. It is as if an invisible umbilical cord tied Him to His Creator; all His life, His motivations, His inspiration, His very words, flowed down this divine channel, as all the life, blood, and food of the babe flows in through that one bond it has with its mother. He throbbed in this mortal world with the vibrations of a celestial world; He set all things pulsating with Him, whether they knew it or not, and drew them up and closer to the throne of God. One of His most moving and sublime rhapsodies is included in a meditation in which He testifies to the power of the praise which He pours out to God, to transform and influence the hearts of others: “I yield Thee such thanks,” He declares, “as can direct the steps of the wayward towards the splendors of the morning light of Thy guidance. … I yield Thee such thanks as can cause the sick to draw nigh unto the waters of Thy healing, and can help those who are far from Thee to approach the living fountain of Thy presence …. I yield Thee such thanks as can stir up all things to extol Thee . . . and can unloose the tongues of all beings to … magnify Thy beauty … I yield Thee such thanks as can make the corrupt tree to bring forth good fruit … and revive the bodies of all beings with the gentle winds of Thy transcendent grace. … I yield Thee such thanks as can cause Thee to forgive all sins and trespasses, and to fulfill the needs of the peoples of all religions, and to waft the fragrances of pardon over the entire creation. … I yield Thee such thanks as can satisfy the wants of all such as seek Thee, and realize the aims of them that have recognized Thee. I yield thee such thanks as can blot out from the hearts of men all suggestions of limitation. …”
Poetic and stirring as these words are, we need not assume them to be merely the effusions of an exalted and over-filled heart. Bahá’u’lláh was never idle in His words. If He tells us that enshrined in the thanks He poured forth to His God is a power that can blot out every limitation from the hearts of men, it is so. The trouble is with us. How many Seers and Prophets, how many scientists and pioneers, have brought men tidings of truths and powers they knew not of and offered them to their generation, only to be spat upon, laughed to scorn, killed or ignored? And in the end a more enlightened people would take the key and open the door and find the wonders that the incredulous disbelieved, to be all true, ready at hand, waiting to be used for their good. The Prophets of God are intent on giving us both the good of this world and the one awaiting us after death, but most of the time we will not have it. We, blind and perverse, prefer our own ways! Did not Christ say: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, … how often would I have gathered Thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” It is not a new story. Every Divine Manifestation has placed jewels in the hands of man, only to see them flung aside for some foolish toy of his choosing.
Yet each Prophet has assured us that God’s pity knows no bounds. “Thou art, in truth,” states Bahá’u’lláh in one of His prayers, “He Who mercy hath encompassed all the worlds, and Whose grace hath embraced all who dwell on earth and in heaven. Who is there who hath cried after Thee, and whose prayers hath remained unanswered? Where is he to be found who hath reached forth towards Thee, and whom Thou hast failed to approach? Who is he who can claim to have fixed his gaze upon Thee, and towards whom the eye of Thy loving-kindness hath not been directed? I bear witness that Thou hadst turned toward Thy servants ere they had turned toward Thee, and hadst remembered them ere they had remembered Thee.”
It is an education in divinity to read Bahá’u’lláh’s prayers. He maintained the unique nature of God, the utter impossibility of any creature approaching or comprehending Him, in a clear and graphic manner. The unseen God of Moses; the “Father” of Christ, unto Whom none cometh to but through the Son; the One of Whom Muhammad so beautifully said: “Eyes see Him not but He sees the eyes,” is exalted, one might say, to unimaginable heights by Him. “Thou art He Whom all things worship and Who worshipeth no one, Who is the Lord of all things and the vassal of none, Who knoweth all things and is known of none.” “From everlasting Thou hast existed alone with no one beside Thee, and wilt, to everlasting, continue to remain the same, in the sublimity of Thine essence and the inaccessible heights of Thy glory,” He declares. In a short and wonderful prayer He solemnly sets forth the fundamental doctrine of the nature of God with a lucidity and power that would, in any past dispensation, have gained it first place in the dogmas of the church:
“God testifieth to the unity of His Godhood and to the singleness of His Own Being. On the throne of eternity, from the inaccessible heights of His station, His tongue proclaimeth that there is none other God but Him. He Himself, independently of all else, hath ever been a witness unto His own oneness, the revealer of His own nature, the glorifier of His own essence. He, verily, is the All-Powerful, the Almighty, the Beauteous.
“He is supreme over His servants, and standeth over His creatures. In His hand is the source of authority and truth. He maketh men alive by His signs, and causeth them to die through His wrath. He shall not be asked of His doings and His might is equal unto all things. He is the Potent, the All-Subduing. He holdeth within His grasp the empire of all things, and on His right hand is fixed the Kingdom of His Revelation. His power, verily, embraceth the whole of creation. Victory and over-lordship are His; all might and dominion are His; all glory and greatness are His. He, of a truth, is the All-Glorious, the Most Powerful, the Unconditioned.”
The “Unconditioned.” That one word provides ample food for thought. Some of the adjectives Bahá’u’lláh uses for the Godhead are most striking and seem to plow up our minds and prepare them for an infinitely deeper and richer concept of the One on Whom we depend for everything we have, be it physical or spiritual. For instance: “O God Who art the Author of all Manifestations . . . the Fountain-Head of all Revelations, and the Well-Spring of all Lights.” As words are the tools of men’s thoughts, they are tremendously important. The “Well-Spring of all Lights,” though but another way of saying, that all the Prophets are generated by God, presents a tremendous mental picture to a man who has studied something of modern astronomy, of a universe which is light upon light, of matter which itself is the stuff of which light is made. Compare the mental picture this phase conjures up with that of an anthropomorphic God, bearded, stern and much like a human grandfather, who created the world in six days and took a rest on the seventh! Though no doubt when that metaphor was propounded it opened up men’s minds to a new and wider concept of the Divinity. A being Who could do all that in six days was worthy of worship and to be strictly obeyed!
Bahá’u’lláh calls God “the Pitier of thralls,” “the Pitier of the downtrodden,” “the Help in peril,” “the Great Giver,” “the Restorer”—words which sink into our hearts these dark days with an added comfort as we see so many of our fellow-men downtrodden, in deadly danger, despoiled and broken. He tells us that this “King of Kings,” this “Quickener of every mouldering bone,” this “Enlightener of all creation” Who is the “Lord of all mankind” and the “Lord of the Judgment Day” is the One “Whom nothing whatsoever can frustrate.” Such a God will right all wrongs and rule the world for the good of man! Grievous, on the other hand, as are our sins, as testified by these words: “Wert Thou to regard Thy servants according to their deserts … they would assuredly merit naught except Thy chastisement …” He yet assures us, in the words He addresses to God, that: “All the atoms of the earth testify that Thou art the Ever-Forgiving, the Benevolent, the Great Giver …” and that “the whole universe testifieth to Thy generosity.” Even though He be the Lord “Whose strength is immense, Whose decree is terrible,” yet we can confidently turn to Him, and, in Bahá’u’lláh’s words declare: “A drop out of the ocean of Thy mercy sufficeth to quench the flames of hell, and a spark of the fire of Thy love is enough to set ablaze a whole world.”
Our world is steadily sinking into ruin. We have waxed proud and forgotten our God—as many a people has before us to its soul’s undoing—and turned away from Him, disbelieved in Him, followed proudly our own fancies and desires. No Being that was not such a Being as Bahá’u’lláh depicts would still hold open His door to us! And yet in how many passages such as these the way back, the way we once trod but have now, for the most part, forgotten, is pointed out to us and words placed in our mouths that are food for our sick hearts and souls: “Cleanse me with the waters of Thy Mercy, O my Lord, and make me wholly Thine. …” “I am all wretchedness, O my Lord, and Thou art the Most Powerful, the Almighty!” “Thy Might, in truth, is equal to all things!” “Whosoever has recognized Thee will turn to none save Thee, and will seek for naught else except Thyself.” “Help me to guard the pearls of Thy love, which by Thy decree, Thou hast enshrined in my heart.” “‘Many a chilled heart, O my God, hath been set ablaze with the fire of Thy Cause, and many a slumberer hath been awakened by the sweetness of Thy voice.”
Of such stuff as these is the treasury of prayers which Bahá’u’lláh has left us. They are suited to the child before he goes to sleep at night, to the mystic, to the busy man of practical outlook, to the devout. An instance of the comprehension and tolerance with which He viewed human nature is the fact that He revealed a choice of three daily, and obligatory, prayers. While imposing on men the obligation of turning to their Creator once, at least, during every day, He provided a means of doing so suited to widely different natures. One takes about thirty seconds to recite and is to be said at the hour of noon; one is longer and is to be used three times during the day; and the third is very long and profound, accompanied by many genuflexions, and may be used any time during the twenty-four hours of the day. The Divine Physician provided us with what we might call a spiritual polish with which to brighten our hearts. We need this renewal which comes through turning to the Sun of Eternal Truth—as every bird and beast, be it ever so humble, responds to the light of the physical sun at dawn—but he gave latitude to the individual state of development and temperament.
Some Westerners have found the long Daily Prayer very strange; no doubt this is because the present generation has ceased to feel intimate with its God. For a man to stand alone in his room and stretch his arms out to nothingness, or kneel down before a blank wall, in the midst of familiar objects, seems to him unnatural and even foolish. This is because he has lost the sense of the “living God.” God, far from being to him, as the Qur’án says, “nearer than his life’s vein,” has become more of an X in some vast equation. And yet men that we honor and men that we long to emulate have not felt shy before their God. Many a burly crusader knelt on the stones of Jerusalem where he felt His Lord’s feet might have trod, and the Pilgrim Fathers did not feel self-conscious on their knees when turning to God who had led them to a new and freer homeland. The prayers of Bahá’u’lláh will help lead us back to that warm sense of the reality and nearness of God, through use. He makes no compulsion, He takes our hand and guides us into the safe road trodden by our forefathers.
No survey, however cursory and inadequate, of His Prayers would be complete without quoting one of the most passionate and moving of them all, one associated with probably the saddest hours of His whole life. After His banishment from Persia to ‘Iráq the initial signs of envy and hatred began to be apparent from His younger brother, Mírzá Yaḥyá. In order to avoid open rupture and the consequent humiliation of the Faith in the eyes of the non-believers, Bahá’u’lláh retired for two years to the wilderness of Kurdistan and lived, unknown, as a dervish among its people.
During His absence the situation, far from improving, now that the field was left open and uncontested to Mírzá Yaḥyá, steadily deteriorated. Shameful acts took place and conditions became so acute that the believers sent a messenger in search of Baha’u’llah to report to Him and beseech His return. Reluctantly He turned His face towards Baghdad. He was going back to mount the helm; storms lay ahead of Him of a severity and bitterness no other Prophet had ever known; behind Him, once and for all, He left a measure of peace and seclusion. For two years He had communed with His own soul. He had written wonderful poems and revealed beautiful prayers and treatises. Now He headed back into the inky blackness of an implacable hatred and jealousy, where attempts against His very life were to be plotted and even prove partially successful. As He tramped along through the wilderness, beautiful in its dress of spring, the messenger that had gone to fetch Him back testified that He chanted over and over again this prayer. It rolled forth like thunder from His agonized heart:
“O God, my God! Be Thou not far from me, for tribulation upon tribulation hath gathered about me. O God, my God! Leave me not to myself, for the extreme of adversity hath come upon me. Out of the pure milk, drawn from the breasts of Thy loving-kindness, give me to drink, for my thirst hath utterly consumed me. Beneath the shadow of the wings of Thy mercy shelter me, for all mine adversaries with one consent have fallen upon me. Keep me near to the throne of Thy majesty, face to face with the revelations of the signs of Thy glory, for wretchedness hath grievously touched me. With the fruits of the tree of Thine Eternity nourish me, for uttermost weakness hath overtaken me. From the cups of joy, proffered by the hands of Thy tender mercies, feed me, for manifold sorrows have laid mighty hold upon me. With the broidered robe of Thine omnipotent sovereignty attire me, for poverty hath altogether despoiled me. Lulled by the cooing of the Dove of Thine Eternity, suffer me to sleep, for woes at their blackest have befallen me. Before the throne of Thy oneness, amid the blaze of the beauty of Thy countenance, cause me to abide, for fear and trembling have violently crushed me. Beneath the ocean of Thy forgiveness, faced with the restlessness of the leviathan of glory, immerse me, for my sins have utterly doomed me.”
One of the most inspiring things about Nabíl’s Narrative, The Dawn-Breakers, is that it creates, not alone a background of knowledge and authenticity in which to set the Bahá’í Cause in its present world-wide expression, nor just a key to a
way of living and being that we in the West had almost forgotten was possible to the human race, (latent indeed within their seed of humanness), but opens before us a stage which was a nation and an epoch in history, on which a pageant of romance, of adventure and heroism unequaled by any crusade plays itself before us. And slowly as we become more en rapport with the thought and mode of expression of Nabíl, that pageant and its figures begin to take hold on us, to live for us as realisms; or perhaps something deeper still, we take hold of them and, inspired by their deeds and the lofty atmosphere of their lives, try to carry out into our own far Western World that same banner of shining belief and inner conviction that they raised aloft in Persia not eighty years ago.
The mere sound of their names is music to us; their faces, in which the light of their actions shone so brightly, become stars in the new world dawn, casting forever their radiance upon the path of men. The dusty roads of Persia, winding amidst its rocky hills and wind and heat-swept plains, become familiar highways in our minds down which we follow, with love and tender adoration, the green-turbaned, slight figure of the Báb led by his cavalcade of guards who loved Him so devotedly they begged Him to escape from their custody. Or we accompany Qurratu’l-‘Ayn in her howdah, travelling from city to city and raising a call no woman had ever dared to proclaim before in the lands of her bondage. Or it is after the hoofs of Mullá Husayn’s horse that we speed, hearing him cry,
Yá Sáhibu’z-Zamán! shaking the very walls of our hearts.
In Nabíl we partake of the food of Beauty, a rare thing in a world grown clouded with strife, terror and sadness. We see the days rise under the light of a heavy golden sun, in a land where the weight of its heat falls on the world like a tangible cloak; we await the nights under an Eastern sky where when the moon is absent a million stars hang low to light your way, and when the moon is present she eclipses in white light all but her own deep and mysterious shadows. Against these settings rise the nineteen Letters of the Living.
The first, the Báb. No one person could attempt an adequate description of that blessed Youth, but through the book run testimonies of Him, as though He were a wind in the tree of humanity and the voices of the leaves each gave their separate praise to Him.
… His countenance revealed an expression of humility and kindliness which I can never describe.
Every time I met Him, I found Him in such a state of humility and lowliness as words fail me to describe; His downcast eyes, His extreme courtesy, and the serene expression of His face made an indelible impression upon my soul.
The sweetness of His utterance still lingers in my memory.
The melody of His chanting, the rhythmic flow of the verses which streamed from His lips caught our ears and penetrated into our very souls …. Our hearts vibrated in their depths to the appeal of His utterance. Not alone did every bearing of that One give forth testimony of His station, but His walk was sufficient for Quddús to distinguish Him.
Why seek you to hide Him from me? he exclaimed.
I can recognize Him by His gait. I confidently testify that none besides Him, whether in the East or in the West, can claim to be the Truth. None other can manifest the power and majesty that radiate from His holy person.
After passing from one persecution to another, and prison to prison, always with that surpassing meekness of mien, the glory of the light within Him was turned like a beacon upon the world when He declared His station to the ‘ulamás of Tabríz at His trial. He entered that room where all were arrayed against Him, and they were but the symbols of the nation which would at length kill Him and seek to hound from the earth His teachings and His followers, and that nation in turn was only the voice of a darkened world which perished from His light. And yet,
the majesty of His gait, the expression of overpowering coherence which sat upon His brow—above all, the spirit of power which shone from His whole being, appeared to have for a moment crushed the soul out of the body of those whom He had greeted. A deep, a mysterious silence, suddenly fell upon them. Not one soul in that distinguished assembly dared breathe a single word. At last the stillness which brooded over them was broken by the Nizámu’l-Ulamá’. Who do you claim to be, he asked the Báb, and what is the message which you have brought?I am, thrice exclaimed the Báb, I am, I am, the promised One! I am the One whose name you have for a thousand years invoked, at whose mention you have risen, whose advent you have longed to witness, and the hour of whose Revelation you have prayed God to hasten. Verily I say, it is incumbent upon the peoples of both the East and the West to obey My word and to pledge allegiance to My person.
Thus did God’s paean rise in this greatest dawn of history, summoning a world to the shores of His Communion. In Bahá’u’lláh’s own Words:
Nigh unto the celestial paradise a new garden hath been made manifest, round which circle the denizens of the realm on high and the immortal dwellers of the exalted paradise. Strive, then, that ye may attain that station, that ye may unravel from its wind-flowers the mysteries of love and know from its eternal fruit the secret of divine and consummate wisdom.
What was the fragrance of those
windflowers? No faint perfume of abstinence, no celibate fragrance that retired from the world, but a deep and abiding passion of being. A love that burned like a fire in the hearts of the souls and they became as stubble in its flame. Their lives were romance, sacrifice, love, and a deep and mysterious joy. Were they not—those who bared their breasts to the seen and unseen shafts of the enemy—like that whale of love that swallows up the seven seas and says,
Is there yet any more? and like that lover—
thou wilt see him cool in fire and find him dry even in the sea. When the heroes of Shaykh Tabarsí had been reduced to starving to death on the bone dust of their horses, grass, and their saddle and shoe leather, did not Quddús say, while rolling a cannon-ball scornfully with his foot:
How utterly unaware are these boastful aggressors of the power of God’s avenging wrath! … Fear not the threats of the wicked, neither be dismayed by the clamour of the ungodly. Then he continued saying that no power on earth could hasten or postpone the hour of their death, but should they allow themselves for one moment to become afraid they would have cast themselves out of the stronghold of Divine protection. Bahá’u’lláh said:
My love is My stronghold; he that entereth therein is safe and secure, and he that turneth away shall surely stray and perish. When we have followed Nabíl’s Narrative to the last of its multiple truths, histories and wisdoms, we find that the key to it, to the lives of those early Bábí martyrs, nay to the Cause of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh, is summed up in the mystery of love. Their love was their indomitable and miraculous strength, their shining armour of protection, the diadem of their faith, the blood in which they pledged their eternal Beloved—that One for whom the heart of the world has ever languished and sought.
Nabíl becomes a lyric poet in those lines in which he describes the love of Bahá’u’lláh and the Báb.
The Báb, whose trials and sufferings had preceded, in almost every case, those of Bahá’u’lláh, had offered Himself to ransom His Beloved from the perils that beset that precious Life; whilst Bahá’u’lláh, on His part, unwilling that He who so greatly loved Him should be the sole Sufferer, shared at every turn the cup that had touched His lips. Such love no eye has ever beheld, nor has mortal heart conceived such mutual devotion. If the branches of every tree were turned into pens, and all the seas into ink, and earth and heaven rolled into one parchment, the immensity of that love would still remain unexplored, and the depths of that devotion unfathomed.
Our minds turn to Mullá Husayn, who, mounted at the head of two hundred companions, bearing the prophesied Black Standard of Muhammad, and wearing the Báb’s green turban, held at Bay the combined armies of the Sháh for eleven months. Riding out in the teeth of twelve thousand men and crying,
O Lord of the Age, he and the invincible host of God’s followers dispersed the terrified enemy. At length he shed his blood at Quddús’ feet whilst speaking of the depths of the Sea of Revelation and their beloved Báb, ere his life ebbed away.
Or we remember Qurratu’l-‘Ayn, beautiful and famous, who escaped clandestinely from her own home in which her husband had imprisoned her in his opposition to her Bábí Faith, leaving her children motherless and making their father her bitterest enemy, to arise and proclaim throughout Persia and ‘Iráq the glory of the New Day. She created such a furor throughout the East that E. G. Browne was compelled to pay her one of the most glowing tributes woman has ever received.
The appearance of such a woman as Qurratu’l-‘Ayn is in any country and any age a rare phenomenon, but in such a country as Persia it is a prodigy—nay, almost a miracle. Alike in virtue of her marvellous beauty, her rare intellectual gifts, her fervid eloquence, her fearless devotion, and her glorious martyrdom, she stands forth incomparable and immortal, amongst her countrywomen. Had the Bábí Religion no other claim to greatness this were sufficient—that it produced a heroine like Qurratu’l-‘Ayn. The queenly names of history fade before the unveiled beauty of
her whom the tongue of power hath named Tahirih—the pure one. That moment, when, with one gesture of freeing herself and all women from the veils of weakness, inferiority, and submission, Qurratu’l-‘Ayn and the Bábí men unveiled, is unrivaled and has no precedent. Some turned from her bared face and doubted the Messenger of God because of tradition; one old man, unable to bear the age in which he found himself, attempted suicide; Quddús was spellbound with indignation; but Qurratu’l-‘Ayn cast her glance towards Bahá’u’lláh, who had named her
Tahirih, and said:
Verily, amid gardens and rivers shall the pious dwell in the seat of truth, in the presence of the potent King. … This day is the day of festivity and universal rejoicing, the day on which the fetters of the past are burst asunder. Let those who have shared in this great achievement arise and embrace each other. And they feasted together in the tent of Bahá’u’lláh, surrounded by the beautiful gardens of Badasht.
The same quality of beauty and majesty pervades all the events chronicled by Nabíl; sincerity is all that is required to become deeply and permanently inspired by the record contained in The Dawn-Breakers, for no heart who loved truth could read its history unmoved and remain unchanged. Here one tastes again those
living waters that alone can revivify mankind and nurture in him the seed of immortality.
Even the humblest of souls won undying glory, like that man who, seated in the bazaars of Isfáhán, heard the proclamation of the Báb’s message while sifting his wheat, and instantly and unhesitatingly accepted it. Later he hastened, sieve in hand, to join the heroes of Tabarsí, saying,
With this sieve which I carry with me I intend to sift the people in every city through which I pass. Whomsoever I find ready to espouse the Cause I have embraced, I will ask to join me and hasten forthwith to the field of martyrdom. Of all the wise and devout of that city he alone received the crown of a martyr’s fame.
And there was that heart-shattered boy who, when in Tabríz, heard of the Blessed Báb, longed to speed to Him and offer his life in the lists of His followers, and was imprisoned by his family who thought that if not already bewitched, one glimpse of the Báb would enchant him permanently as it did thousands. Inconsolable, he languished and pined for the only expression that could ever satisfy his pure young soul. The agony of his longing was rewarded when in a vision he saw the Báb, who addressed to him these words:
Rejoice, the hour is approaching when, in this very city, I shall be suspended before the eyes of the multitude and shall fall a victim to the fire of the enemy, I shall choose no one but you to share with me the cup of martyrdom. Rest assured that this promise I give you shall be fulfilled. A few years later it was this youth’s head that rested on the heart of the Báb as they hung bound from the walls of the barrack square of Tabríz, and it was his flesh that was inextricably interwoven with the Báb’s remains after their joint execution.
To some Nabíl will be a fascinating historical document. To others, great literature. Some will feel crushed by the tragedy of the brutally sacrificed lives of thousands. Others will be exalted by the knowledge that again the human soul has risen to its greatest heights and men have died immortal deaths. But to all of these its more subtile fragrance will be lost. Only those who have through some experience in life touched to their lips the cup of divine love, will fully grasp the purport of this mighty pageant. They will know why the martyrs sometimes sang when being led to execution:
So hath overcome that scarce he knows Whether at the feet of the Beloved It be head or turban which he throws!
And they, becoming fired with that same zeal that pervaded those Dawn-Breakers, will carry on and establish that vision of hope for the world, for which they died.