By Julio Savi

In country after country, the bicentenary of the Birth of the Báb has been celebrated by people representing the rich diversity of the human race, giving rise to countless expressions of art, music, and acts of selfless service in honor of His life and teachings. As part of the efflorescence of activities during this period, Romanian artist Simina Boicu Rahmatian has prepared twenty-five illustrations that depict some of the most significant sites related to the brief but stirring history of the Bábí Faith. The hand-drawn illustrations that follow invite us to immerse ourselves in the “marvelous happenings that…heralded the advent of the Founder of the Bábí Dispensation, the dramatic circumstances of His own eventful life, the miraculous tragedy of His martyrdom, the magic of His influence exerted on the most eminent and powerful among His countrymen.”1Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh [US Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1991] 124 The sepia tones transport us back to the nineteenth century. The contrast between light and shadow brings to life the buildings, towns and landscapes that form the backdrop against which a new religion came into existence. Yet, these images are seldom accompanied by the silhouettes of human beings; it is we the viewers who are invited to step into those scenes and imagine the settings and circumstances in which an extraordinary chapter of humanity’s spiritual evolution unfolded.

Some of the illustrations depict historic Oriental edifices: the Shrine of the Imám Ḥusayn in Karbala (no. 5), a well-known mosque and marketplace in Baghdad (no. 10), and the Masjid-i-Vakíl of Shiráz (no. 11). Also depicted are settings of sites more specifically associated with Bábí history: The front door of the Báb’s house in Shiráz (no. 3) is shut before our eyes, but our minds are invited in to imagine that fateful evening of May 22, 1844, when the Báb announced to His first disciple that He was the Promised One of Islam and the Gate (Báb, in Arabic) to a new age for humankind. While looking at the desolate castles of Máh-kú and Chihríq (nos. 14 and 15), where the Báb was imprisoned from 1847 to 1850, we are reminded of His isolation and deprivation; as He wrote, “there is not at night even a lighted lamp.”2Selections from the Writings of the Báb [Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 1978] 87 The sun-drenched barrack square of Ṭabríz (no. 20), where the Báb was executed, calls to our minds that unique historic moment when He, the target of hundreds of bullets, was nowhere to be found after the thick cloud of smoke cleared. Thousands, crowded around the city square, witnessed that remarkable scene. Other pictures remind us of the heroism of tens of thousands of His followers who courageously advanced a Cause that was destined to change the world. We visit the Sabzih-Maydán of Tehran (no. 18), where a young Iranian met his death singing a couplet from Rúmí: “In one hand the wine-cup, in one hand the tresses of the Friend. Such a dance in the midst of the market-place is my desire!“3Edward G. Browne, ed., A Traveller’s Narrative [Cambridge University Press, 1891] 333-4, Note T We stand before Tehran’s Gate of Naw (no. 22), on whose sides the remains of many of the Bábís were hung. We reflect somberly at Zanján’s square (no. 21), another theater of a terrible slaughter.

In the opening and concluding scenes of the collection, the artist portrays the cypress grove located at the south side of the Shrine of the Báb. The first image (no. 1) depicts the grove as seen from below in the early 1900s; the final image (no. 25) is the view from above that we see today. In the former, we can imagine Bahá’u’lláh standing beside the grove and instructing ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to house the remains of the Báb in the land just below those trees. In the latter, we see Bahá’u’lláh’s vision of the Shrine of the Báb realized in “the Queen of Carmel enthroned on God’s Mountain, crowned in glowing gold, robed in shimmering white, girdled in emerald green, enchanting every eye from air, sea, plain and hill.”4Shoghi Effendi, Messages to the Baha’i World – 1950-1957 [Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1971] 169

In the visual journey ahead, we find the embodiment of these poignant words written by Shoghi Effendi in 1944:

We behold, as we survey the episodes of this first act of a sublime drama, the figure of its Master Hero, the Báb, arise meteor-like above the horizon of Shíráz, traverse the sombre sky of Persia from south to north, decline with tragic swiftness, and perish in a blaze of glory. We see His satellites, a galaxy of God-intoxicated heroes, mount above that same horizon, irradiate that same incandescent light, burn themselves out with that self-same swiftness, and impart in their turn an added impetus to the steadily gathering momentum of God’s nascent Faith.5Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By [Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1974] 3

As the world endures a period of heightened crisis, may we be reminded of the extraordinary Figure of the Báb, Who was able to “illuminate a society and an age shrouded in darkness.”6October 2019 message of the Universal House of Justice to all who have come to honour the Herald of a new Dawn

Julio Savi, May 2020

1. Haifa. The cypress grove, which today sits on the south side of the Shrine of the Báb on Mount Carmel, as seen from below in the early 1900s.

2. A map of Persia, reproduced from the The Dawn-Breakers, an early narrative of Bábí history authored by Nabil-i-A’zam.

3. Shíráz. The front door of the house of the Báb, where on the evening of May 22, 1844 A.D., He announced to His first follower, Mullá Husayn-i-Bushrú’í, that He was the Promised One of Islam and the Gate (Báb, in Arabic) to a new age for humankind.

4. Karbala. The Madrassa (theological school) of Masjid-i-Dáru’sh-Shafá where many disciples of the Báb stayed, including the young Nabíl-i-A‘zam, the future chronicler of the Bábí-Bahá’í Faith.

5. Karbala. The shrine of the Imám Ḥusayn, the most venerated Muslim martyr. In the first half of the nineteenth century the Shaykhi school flourished in this religious centre. Its first two masters preached the imminent advent of the Promised One of Islam and prepared their pupils for that event. This school was attended by the first disciples of the Báb and many other prominent figures of Bábí history.

6. Tehran. Golestan Palace (16th-19th century), the royal residence of the Qájár kings Muḥammad Sháh and Náṣiri’d-Dín Sháh. These two Qájár sovereigns ruled Persia in the years during which the Bábí Faith was born and flourished. Their oppressive decrees gave rise to the bloodiest episodes in Bábí history, including the martyrdom of the Báb in Ṭabríz in 1850.

7. Shíráz. The room where the Báb was born on October 20, 1819. He was the descendant of a house that traced its origin to the Prophet Muḥammad Himself

8. Shiraz. The House of the Báb (see also illustration no. 3), where He lived together with His wife and His mother until early 1846.

9. Old Persian vessels in the port of Búshihr where in October 1844, the Báb embarked on His pilgrimage to Mecca. When He was in front of the Kaaba, He declared, before hundreds of pilgrims, that He was the Promised One. He also sent a number of His Writings to the Sheriff of Mecca through one of His disciples. But His announcement went unheeded.

10. Baghdad. A mosque and marketplace. Soon after His Declaration, the Báb sent His first disciples to Persia and Persian Iraq to announce the advent of the Promised One of Islam.

11. Shiráz. Masjid-i-Vakíl. In late June 1845, the Báb returned to Shiráz from His pilgrimage and immediately encountered opposition from the Governor and clergy of the city, where His claims had evoked great turmoil. He was summoned to clarify His position, which He did from the pulpit of this mosque. After that episode, the Báb’s fame as a Holy Man grew daily. In September 1846, the Governor expelled the Báb from Shiráz, and He then traveled north to the city of Iṣfáhán.

12. Iṣfáhán. The residence of the Governor. In stark contrast to his counterpart in Shiraz, the Governor of Iṣfáhán became attracted to the personality of the Bab, treated Him with utmost respect and adoration, and accepted the Báb’s station as a Divine Messenger. He hosted the Báb in His magnificent residence, known as Imárat-i-Khurshíd, “Palace of the sun.”

13. Ḥájí Mírzá Janí’s house in Káshán. In early 1847 the Governor of Iṣfáhán suddenly passed away. The Báb was then summoned to the capital by Muḥammad Sháh, whose curiosity had been aroused by the enthusiastic descriptions of the Báb that had reached his court. During the Báb’s voyage to Tehran, He stopped in Kashán and spent Naw-Rúz (the Persian New-Year) 1847 in this house, which belonged to of one of His disciples, Ḥájí Mírzá Janí, a prominent merchant of that city.

14. The Castle in Máh-Kú. When the Báb neared the Persian capital, Muḥammad Sháh, pressed by his jealous and suspicious Grand Vizier, decided not to receive Him and, instead, exiled Him to the remote castle of Máh-Kú. The custodian of the castle was instructed to keep the Báb strictly isolated under close surveillance.

15. The Castle in Chihríq. In April 1848 the Báb was transferred from Máh-Kú to the even more remote Castle of Chihríq, by order of the Grand Vizier. The Báb remained in that Castle from 1848 to 1850. Credit: Simina Boicu

16. Ṭabríz. The Namáz-khánih (prayer-house) of the Shaykhu’l-Islám, the head of the religious court of the city. In the summer of 1848, the Báb was brought to Ṭabríz to be examined by a mixed secular and religious court, determined to humiliate Him. During that trial, He openly proclaimed His Mission. Irritated by the Báb’s unruffled majesty and alarmed by His open denunciation of their temporal power, the priests convinced the lay members of the court to approve their verdict that He should be tortured by bastinado. In the courtyard shown in this illustration, the Shaykhu’l-Islám personally carried out the enforcement of the sentence.

17. The shrine of Shaykh Ṭabarsí. In July 1848, Mullá Ḥusayn received a message from the Báb inviting him to rally his fellow disciples and to proclaim the advent of the Promised One in the province of Mázindarán. Along the way he enrolled those of his fellow believers who were willing to follow him. Because of their allegiance to the new Faith, they were attacked by the population of Bárfurúsh, Mázindarán, and took refuge in the Shrine of Shaykh Ṭabarsí located a short distance from the town, where they built a fort for self-defence. They heroically withstood the assaults of an army that far outnumbered them. In May 1849, they surrendered after a solemn promise of peace was signed by the Commander of the Imperial army, a promise that was totally disregarded. The long battle ended with the massacre of almost all the Bábís.

18. Tehran. The Sabzih-Maydán. Many Bábís were slain in this marketplace. First among them were the Seven Martyrs of Tehran. These heroic believers, like their Bábí companions across the country, did not adopt the Islamic practice of kitmán, literally “concealment,” which allows a believer to conceal his faith when facing religious persecution. The Seven Martyrs of Tehran accepted with gladness to be martyred.

19. Nayríz. Vaḥíd’s house. From 27 May to 21 June 1850, secular and clerical forces joined against the peaceful Bábís of Nayríz, a town in the province of Fárs, to prevent them from professing and spreading their new Faith. The Bábís were led by Siyyid Yaḥyáy-i-Darábí, surnamed Vaḥíd (the peerless) by the Báb, one of the most distinguished theologians of Persia who had been sent by the Sháh to interview the Báb and subsequently embraced His Message. The Báb’s followers were ultimately slaughtered by the ruthless forces.

20. Ṭabríz. The Barrack Square. The decision to execute the Báb was made by the Grand Vizier of Náṣiri’d-Dín Sháh. He was alarmed by the growing fame of the Báb, exasperated by the resistance of His followers to the State forces that tried to prevent them from spreading the new Message, and hostile to the spiritual and social renewal that He preached. The Báb emerged unscathed from a first volley of 750 muskets. A second platoon volunteered to replace the first, which had refused to repeat the attempted execution. After His martyrdom, the Báb’s remains were rescued by His followers and carefully protected until He was finally laid to rest on Mt. Carmel in 1909.

21. Zanján. The square. From May 1850 to January 1851, the combined forces of the State and the Zanján clergy attacked the followers of the Báb in the city. Courageously led by a scholar, known as Hujjat, who had embraced the new teachings, the Bábís defended themselves valiantly against a brutal enemy but were ultimately killed in a tragic onslaught.

22. Tehran. The Gate of Naw. On August 15, 1852, three young Bábís, blinded by grief after the martyrdom of the Báb as well as of many of their fellow believers, foolishly attempted to take the life of Náṣiri’d-Dín Sháh but failed. A horrific massacre of the Bábís followed. At the Gate of Naw, one of the northern gates of Tehran, the remains of many of the Báb’s followers were hung.

23. Tehran. The Madrisiy-i-Ṣadr, a theological school where Bahá’u’lláh had stayed. Bahá’u’lláh embraced the Message of the Báb in 1844, and immediately became an active supporter of His new Faith. After imprisonment in a Tehran dungeon in 1852, Baha’u’llah was exiled to Baghdad. In that city in 1863, He announced to a small group of friends that He was “He Whom God shall make manifest,” as promised by the Báb. His followers came to be known as Bahá’ís, and the religion He founded as the Bahá’í Faith.

24. Haifa. The Shrine of the Báb, the final resting place of the Prophet-Martyr, is an iconic symbol of hope and peace, surrounded by beautiful gardens and situated along 18 terraces that cascade down the side of Mount Carmel. To the left of the sacred Shrine is the Arc, comprising, from left to right, the International Teaching Centre, the Seat of the Universal House of Justice, the Centre for the Study of the Sacred Texts, and the International Archives Building.

25. Haifa. The cypress grove beside the spot designated by Bahá’u’lláh, in 1891, for the remains of the Báb. Today, the Shrine of the Báb stands on that very spot. Credit: Simina Boicu

Two hundred years ago, a Child was born Whose life and work were to revolutionize human history. His name was Siyyid ‘Alí-Muhammad, and He would come to be known to history as the Báb. The setting of His birth was a modest house in Shíráz, a city in southern Iran known for its renowned poets and its gardens of unsurpassed beauty. As the bicentenary of His birth is being celebrated by the members of a world community in neighborhoods and villages across the planet, it is timely to recall the circumstances surrounding His appearance and to reflect on the significance of His mission. Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, Himself born two years earlier, lauded the Báb as Mine own previous Manifestation1See Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, no. CXV; Days of Remembranc, no. 37, par. 1. and paid tribute to Him in these words:

No understanding can grasp the nature of His Revelation, nor can any knowledge comprehend the full measure of His Faith ….All else save Him are created by His command, and move and have their being through His law. He is the Revealer of the divine mysteries, and the Expounder of the hidden and ancient wisdom.2The Kitáb-i-Íqán, page 243

The House of the Báb, where the Báb declared His mission on 23 May 1844 in Shiraz, Iran, before its destruction in 1979

Nineteenth-century Persia, once the cradle of a great civilization, was steeped in ignorance and corruption, the lives of its masses marked by disillusionment and hopelessness. Nor was the world at large faring much better, subject to the blights of war, imperialism, and slavery, and suffering the oppression of prejudice, growing materialism, and loss of faith. Into this darkness came the blazing figure of the Báb, shedding light upon the world and guiding a lost humanity in a new direction. Eulogizing the night on which the Báb was born, Bahá’u’lláh writes:

Blessed art thou, O night! For through thee was born the Day of God, a Day which We have ordained to be the lamp of salvation unto the denizens of the cities of names, the chalice of victory unto the champions of the arenas of eternity, and the dawning-place of joy and exultation unto all creation.3Days of Remembranc, no. 40, paragraph 2.

Human and Divine Stations

A robe worn by the Báb

The Manifestations of God have two stations. The first is Their human station, the station of individual characteristics and temporal limitations; they love, suffer, and die, as do all human beings. The second is their divine station, one in which they manifest the majesty and power of God, in which their voice is the voice of God Himself. The Báb, while sharing this dual station with all the Prophets of the past, was unique in having a twofold mission, as the Bearer of a wholly independent Revelation and the Herald of One still greater than His own.4God Passes By, page 27. His life and Writings are thus marked by a unique richness arising out of this twofold mission, which, in the words of Shoghi Effendi, constitutes the most distinctive feature of the Bahá’í Dispensation5World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, page 123. –the appearance of two Manifestations of God in close succession.

The complementary nature of the human and the divine stations is clearly visible in the person of the Báb. He was a merchant by profession; He did not belong to any of the ecclesiastical orders of His time and had not acquired the learning current among them. His only schooling was what He received as a child in a traditional primary school, where children were taught to read the Qur’án and little else.6H.M. Balyuzi, The Báb: The Herald of the Day of Days, pages 33–40. Yet, in the course of six short years, from the time He announced His mission in 1844 until His martyrdom in 1850, voluminous writings, revealed with unimaginable rapidity, flowed from His pen. He states that He revealed no less than a thousand verses within the space of five hours, limited only by the capacity of His amanuensis to set down His words. 7Selections from the Writings of the Báb, page 82. The power of His Writings, coupled with the meagerness of His schooling, is, as He Himself attests, proof of His innate knowledge and divine mission:

God beareth Me witness, I was not a man of learning, for I was trained as a merchant. In the year sixty81260 A.H. (1844 A.D.). God graciously infused my soul with the conclusive evidences and weighty knowledge which characterize Him Who is the Testimony of God—may peace be upon Him—until finally in that year I proclaimed God’s hidden Cause and unveiled its well-guarded Pillar, in such wise that no one could refute it.9See Selections from the Writings of the Báb, page 12.

Qur’án belonging to the Báb

The Revealer of these words, the gentle, the youthful and irresistible person of the Báb was matchless in His meekness, imperturbable in His serenity, magnetic in His utterance.10God Passes By, page xiv. He exemplified honesty and fair-mindedness in His business dealings and was gracious and generous towards His family and associates. His tenderness and consideration for His mother and His wife are poignant. A letter He wrote to His wife, Khadíjih Bagum, reflects His deep affection for her:

My sweet love, may God preserve thee. God is my witness that since the time of separation sorrow has been so intense that it cannot be described.11H.M. Balyuzi, Khadíjih Bagum: The Wife of the Báb (Oxford: George Ronald, 1981), page 36.

At the same time, He addressed the people of the world and the rulers of His day with power and authority. Summoned to an examination of His claim before the assembled dignitaries of the land, the Báb, having seated Himself in the place of honor that had been reserved for the heir to the throne, gave His celebrated answer to the question put to Him by that assembly, Whom do you claim to be?:12The Dawn-Breakers, page 315.

I am, 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.13God Passes By, page 21.

He fearlessly proclaimed His mission in countless Tablets revealed by His pen, among them these words with which He addressed Muḥammad Sháh, the reigning monarch of Persia, from His prison cell in the fortress of Máh-kú:

I am the Primal Point from which have been generated all created things. I am the Countenance of God Whose splendour can never be obscured, the Light of God Whose radiance can never fade. Whoso recognizeth Me, assurance and all good are in store for him .…14Selections from the Writings of the Báb, page 12.

The Writings of the Báb

An illuminated tablet of the Báb

The Báb affirms that the verses revealed by a Manifestation of God are the greatest proof of His mission. His own vast Writings, comprising over two thousand Tablets, epistles, prayers, and philosophical treatises,15Selections from the Writings of the Báb (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 2006), pages 96–97. were conclusive and sufficient testimony of His truth for thousands who came into contact with them. While His Writings are complex, unconventional, and at times esoteric, they are also possessed of a power that penetrates the hearts. They restructured the thoughts of their readers, so that they could break free from the chains of obsolete beliefs and inherited customs.

There is remarkable order and method in the Writings of the Báb. He Himself classified them in terms of five modes of revelation: divine verses, prayers, commentaries, rational discourse—written in Arabic—and the Persian mode, which in turn contains each of the other four. Within them, there is a complex but coherent system of symbols (including the symbolism of letters and numbers), extensive quotations from and allusions to the Qur’án and Islamic traditions, and references to concepts from Shaykhí 16The Shaykhí school, founded by Shaykh Ahmad-i-Ahsa’i, emerged in 19th century Iran as a movement within Shi’ah Islam. discourse. The Báb’s works are, moreover, linguistically innovative, distinguished by departures from grammatical conventions and neologisms.17See Nader Saiedi, Gate of the Heart (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier, 2008), page 26. They attempt, as one writer puts it, to mine words for more than the meaning which is bound to them by usage and etymology.18Todd Lawson, The Dangers of Reading: Inlibration, Communion and Transference in the Qur’án Commentary of the Báb, in Scripture and Revelation, edited by Moojan Momen (Oxford: George Ronald, 1997), page 197 The complexity of the ideas and their philosophical and mystical depth, together with the uniqueness of their language, make the Báb’s texts difficult to understand but also account for their richness, beauty, and fascination.

The Writings of the Báb range from brief personal letters written to members of His family to the Kitáb-i-Asmá’, a book of more than three thousand pages, in which He discusses the names and attributes of God and how all of reality can be spiritualized through the recognition of the Source of divine revelation.19Nader Saiedi, Gate of the Heart, page 36. His works seek to reconcile the life of the individual soul to the process of history, by asserting the potential and ultimate meaningfulness of all created things, from the highest to the lowest.20Todd Lawson, The Dangers of Reading, page 198.

In the first, greatest and mightiest21God Passes By, page 6. of His books, the Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’, a commentary on the Súrih of Joseph, the Báb goes beyond merely commenting on the Súrih of the Qur’án, but finds in the figure of Joseph the archetype of His—and eventually Bahá’u’lláh’s—suffering and ultimate triumph. The story of Joseph thus becomes a link binding the Dispensations of the Manifestations of God throughout history. Similarly, the Persian Bayán, the Mother-Book of the Bábí Dispensation,22God Passes By, page 324. is not only the repository of the laws ordained by the Báb, but also the link between the Faith of the Báb and that of Bahá’u’lláh.

The Purpose of Laws

The laws of the Báb are a distinctive feature of His Dispensation. They were designed to abolish at a stroke the privileges and ceremonials, the ordinances and institutions of the past, and to bridge the gap between an obsolete system and the institutions of a world-encompassing Order destined to supersede it.23God Passes By, p 59. The laws in the Báb’s early works were closely linked to the laws of Islam. They constituted at times a restatement and at times a restriction on some Islamic laws, thus beginning the process of gradually refashioning them. With the independence of the new Faith established, the laws revealed in His later works, particularly the Persian Bayán, had a different aim.24See Muḥammad Afnán & William S. Hatcher, Western Islamic Scholarship and Bahá’í Origins, Religion 15:1 (1985), 29-51. They were presented as a more definite break from the past, but their ultimate purpose was to pave the way for the future: the Báb was preparing His followers for the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh.

Thus, the fundamental purpose of the Bayan is twofold. The first is to explain that the recognition of God and of the shared truth of divine religions can be achieved only through the recognition of His Messenger in every age and by adherence to His laws and ordinances: True knowledge, therefore, is the knowledge of God, and this is none other than the recognition of His Manifestation in each Dispensation.25Selections from the Writings of the Báb, page 89. The second purpose is to herald the coming of Bahá’u’lláh, the Promised One designated by the Báb as Him Whom God shall make manifest, about whom He writes: The Bayán is, from beginning to end, the repository of all of His attributes, and the treasury of both His fire and His light.26Selections from the Writings of the Báb, page 101. The laws of the Bayán are formulated to promote and clarify this twofold purpose. For example, the law enjoining the believers to repeat ninety-five times each day the name of God, the All-Glorious (Alláh’u’Abhá)—a law later confirmed by Bahá’u’lláh—was meant to enable the one reciting it to attain to divine guidance so that he would recognize the Promised One when He appeared.

The Báb made the implementation of His laws subject to the sanction of Him Whom God shall make manifest, while at the same time making it clear that His advent was near at hand. In other words, the laws of the Báb created a bridge between the religious dispensations of the past and that of Bahá’u’lláh. Among the laws of the Bahá’í Faith that are based on the teachings of the Báb are those of pilgrimage, marriage, burial, and inheritance, the law of Huqúqu’lláh, and the Badí‘ calendar.27A calendar consisting of nineteen months of nineteen days each, the years organized into cycles of nineteen years and periods of 361 years.

A calendar brought by a Manifestation of God is more than a practical tool; it gives meaning to the passage of time and the movement of history. In its letter announcing the common implementation of the Badí‘ calendar throughout the Bahá’í world, the Universal House of Justice writes:

The adoption of a new calendar in each dispensation is a symbol of the power of Divine Revelation to reshape human perception of material, social, and spiritual reality. Through it, sacred moments are distinguished, humanity’s place in time and space reimagined, and the rhythm of life recast.28Letter dated 10 July 2014 to the Bahá’ís of the World.

The implementation of the calendar initiated by the Bab marks, therefore, a historic step in … the unfoldment of Bahá’u’lláh’s World Order,29Letter dated 10 July 2014 to the Bahá’ís of the World. that same Order which the Báb extolled in the Bayán when He wrote, Well is it with him who fixeth his gaze upon the Order of Bahá’u’lláh and rendereth thanks unto his Lord!30The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh: Selected Letters (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1991, 2009 printing), p. 147.

Striving for Perfection

The Báb exhorted His followers to display the highest degree of purity and refinement, both outwardly and inwardly, so that they would be worthy of receiving Him Whom God shall make manifest when He appeared. The promotion of excellence is a salient and recurring theme in His Writings. In the Persian Bayán, He defines the most perfect state of each thing as its paradise and writes:

He hath ordained for each thing that they who possess power over it should raise it to its highest station of perfection, so that it may not be deprived of its own Paradise.31Authorized translation of an excerpt from the Persian Bayán.

Although the Báb was condemned to a life of exile and imprisonment, yet, in the midst of His sufferings, His life was characterized by the highest degree of refinement and virtue and by His love of beauty32For more on this theme, see Moojan Momen, Perfection and Refinement: Towards an Aesthetics of the Báb, in Lights of ‘Irfán: Studies in the Principal Bahá’í Beliefs, Book Twelve (Darmstadt: ‘Asr-i-Jadíd Publisher, 2010), pages 221–243., which is evident in His exquisite handwriting. One example of His calligraphy is a beautiful scroll on which were inscribed, in the form of a pentacle, no less than three hundred and sixty derivatives of the word Bahá.33God Passes By, page 69.

The prison of Máh-kú

The prison of Máh-kú, the first of two prison fortresses where He spent His last years, was a dungeon on a mountain top, so remote, so inhospitable and dangerously situated a corner of the territory of the Sháh,34The Dawn-Breakers, page 245. in which His companions were two men and four dogs.35Ibid, page 248. In His presence there [was] not at night even a lighted lamp!36Selections from the Writings of the Báb, page 87. And yet, in such a place, the Báb’s qualities of rare nobility and beauty, His gentle yet forceful personality, and His natural charm, combined with infinite tact and judgment, won over almost all with whom He was brought into personal contact, often converting His gaolers to His Faith and turning the ill-disposed into admiring friends.37The Dawn-Breakers, Introduction, page xxxiii.

The life and character of the Báb until the last moments of His life reflected the perfect Light of Which He was the personification. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has said of the Báb:

This illustrious Being arose with such power as to shake the foundations of the religious laws, customs, manners, morals, and habits of Persia, and instituted a new law, faith, and religion. Though the eminent men of the State, the majority of the people, and the leaders of religion arose one and all to destroy and annihilate Him, He single-handedly withstood them and set all of Persia in motion. How numerous the divines, the leaders, and the inhabitants of that land who with perfect joy and gladness offered up their lives in His path and hastened to the field of martyrdom! The government, the nation, the clergy, and prominent leaders sought to extinguish His light, but to no avail. At last His moon rose, His star shone forth, His foundation was secured, and His horizon was flooded with light. He trained a large multitude through divine education and exerted a marvellous influence upon the thoughts, customs, morals, and manners of the Persians.38Some Answered Questions, Part 1: On the Influence of the Prophets in the Evolution of Humanity: 8. The Báb.

The barracks square in Tabríz where the Báb was martyred

Him Whom God shall make manifest

Through His unique combination of kindness, heroism, and majesty, the Báb inspired the selfless allegiance and wholehearted devotion of thousands of followers. Owing to His influence, these men and women not only broke with centuries-old traditions but also laid down their lives to help usher in the new age the Báb had come to inaugurate. Yet, the Object of this matchless adoration directed His own devotion and allegiance towards Bahá’u’lláh, Whose advent He had come to herald. In the Qayyúmu’l-Asmá, the Báb addresses Bahá’u’lláh in these words:

O Thou Remnant of God! I have sacrificed myself wholly for Thee; I have accepted curses for Thy sake, and have yearned for naught but martyrdom in the path of Thy love. Sufficient witness unto me is God, the Exalted, the Protector, the Ancient of Days.39Selections from the Writings of the Báb, page 59.

The expression of Bahá’u’lláh’s praise for the Báb is equally moving. In the Kitáb-i-Íqán, writing about His own tribulations and sufferings, Bahá’u’lláh proclaims:

Amidst them all, We stand, life in hand, wholly resigned to His will; that perchance, through God’s loving-kindness and His grace, this revealed and manifest Letter40Bahá’u’lláh. may lay down His life as a sacrifice in the path of the Primal Point, 41The Báb. the most exalted Word.42The Kitáb-i-Íqán: The Book of Certitude (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 2003, 2008 printing), page 252.

In the Revelation of the Báb—marked by a profound recasting of the purpose of religion, by devotion to perfection and excellence, and by utter self-sacrifice—one finds the seed, endowed by the Hand of Omnipotence with such vast potentialities that was destined to germinate in the form of the still more compelling Revelation43God Passes By, page 54. of Bahá’u’lláh. The Twin Holy Days marking the birth of the Báb and the birth of Bahá’u’lláh, falling on successive days according to the lunar calendar and accounted as one in the sight of God, are fitting occasions to reflect on the distinctive characteristics of the life and teachings of the Báb and on their relationship to the message of Bahá’u’lláh.

The Shrine of the Báb

By Robert Weinberg

Accounts of the meteoric rise, captivating claims, and mysterious public execution of the Báb—born 200 years ago in Shíráz, Iran—not only made a profound impression on the land of His birth, but also much further afield. From the distant reading rooms of Indian and English seats of learning to the salons of Paris’s Left Bank, writers and artists were enthralled by the tragedy of the Báb’s life and the appalling treatment meted out to His followers by the fanatical authorities of the time. This concise survey explores how this particular episode in humanity’s religious history resonated so strongly through the decades that followed.


Observers of the Bábí movement

During the nineteenth century, exotic stories and images from the Orient exerted a peculiar fascination on European minds. There were those, such as the British statesman Lord Curzon, who were impelled to make the journey east, motivated by imperialist ambitions. Others, however, including the decidedly anti-imperialist Edward Granville Browne of Cambridge University, genuinely identified with the cultures they discovered and returned with a new understanding of the potentialities of the peoples they encountered. One writer has maintained that the political theme of Europe regenerating a lifeless Asia had its literary and artistic counterpoint in the thought that the less sophisticated world overseas might be able to rejuvenate a greying Europe.1Philip Darby, Three Faces of Imperialism, Britain and American Approaches to Asia and Africa 1870–1970 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), p. 51.

The Comte de Gobineau’s Religions et Philosophies dans l’Asie Centrale (1865)—with its obvious parallels drawn between the life and martyrdom of the Báb with that of Jesus Christ—was the most influential volume in carrying the story to Western minds. The English poet and cultural critic Matthew Arnold, in A Persian Passion Play, wrote that the chief purpose of Gobineau’s book was to give a history of the career of Mirza Ali Mahommed…the founder of Bâbism, of which most people in England have at least heard the name.2Matthew Arnold, A Persian Passion Play, Essays in Criticism (London: Macmillan, 1884), p. 668. The notion that most people in England, in Arnold’s view, were aware of the Báb indicates how deeply His fame had penetrated into far-off societies.

An encounter with Gobineau’s text also launched Browne on his quest. His only visit to Iran in 1887–88, recounted in A Year Amongst the Persians (1893), lit a fire which…would prove inextinguishable.3A. J. Arberry, Oriental Essays, Portraits of Seven Scholars (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960), p. 171. The memoir of his sojourn did much to familiarize English readers with the Báb, His gentleness and patience, the cruel fate which had overtaken him, and the unflinching courage wherewith he and his followers, from the greatest to the least, had endured the merciless torments inflicted upon them by their enemies.4Edward Granville Browne, A Year Amongst the Persians (London: A. C. Black, 1950), p. 330.

A. L. M. Nicolas, a French scholar born in Iran, was also intrigued by Gobineau’s work. Nicolas’s research, encompassing translations of several of the Báb’s major Writings, additionally contributed much to raising awareness of His life and teachings: My reflections on [The Seven Proofs by the Báb] that I had translated, filled me with a kind of intoxication and I became, little by little, profoundly and uniquely a Bábí. The more I immersed myself in these reflections, the more I admired the greatness of the genius of him who, born in Shíráz, had dreamt of uplifting the Muslim world…5A. L. M. Nicolas, cited in Moojan Momen, The Bábí and Bahá’í Religions 1844–1944: Some Contemporary Western Accounts (Oxford: George Ronald Publisher, 1981), p. 37. Nicolas maintained a lifelong admiration for the Báb, concluding: Poor great Prophet, born in the heart of Persia, without any means of instruction, and who, alone in the world, encircled by enemies, succeeds by the force of his genius in creating a universal and wise religion…. I want people to admire the sublimity of the Báb, who has, moreover, paid with his life, with his blood, for the reforms he preached.6Ibid., p. 38.


(L-R): Edward Granville Brown, Matthew Arnold. Credit: Simina Boicu

Poetic responses in Iran

The power of the written or spoken word is given great emphasis in the Bábí and Bahá’í scriptures. The Báb Himself cited a tradition, Treasures lie hidden beneath the throne of God; the key to those treasures is the tongue of poets.7Nabíl-i-A’ẓam (Muḥammad-i-Zarandí). The Dawn-Breakers: Nabíl’s Narrative of the Early Days of the Bahá’í Revelation (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá’í Publishing Committee, 1932), pp. 258–59. Among the early followers of the new faith were such distinguished poets as Táhirih, Varqá, Na’ím, and ‘Andalíb.8Baydá’í’s Memoir of the Poets of the First Bahá’í Century contains biographical notes about, and examples of work by, no fewer than 134 Bábí and Bahá’í poets.

Accounts of the Bábís generated an almost immediate response from writers in Iran itself. Mírzá Habíb-i-Shírází, known as Qá’iní, one of the country’s most eminent poets, was reportedly the first to extol the Báb in his work.9Nabíl-i-A’ẓam, The Dawn-Breakers, p. 258. Footnote 1. The news of more than 300 Bábís under siege at the Shrine of Shaykh Tabársí who, despite their lack of military expertise, held off the forces of the Sháh’s army for almost a year—notably aided by an exceptionally devastating display of swordsmanship by the Báb’s first follower Mullá Ḥusayn, who was but a religious scholar—evoked the enthusiasm of poets who, in different cities of Persia, were moved to celebrate the exploits of the author of so daring an act. Their poems helped to diffuse the knowledge, and to immortalize the memory, of that mighty deed.10Nabíl-i-A’ẓam, The Dawn-Breakers, p. 333. In the West, reports of the beleaguered Bábís were extensively covered by the press11In an ongoing study, Jan Teofil Jasion has recorded 1380 articles for the years between 1845 and 1859. By the end of December 1845, more than 50 articles had been published in newspapers throughout Britain, France and the United States of America. By 1857, newspaper reports were printed in practically every capital city in Western Europe and as far afield as Java, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, Hawaii and Canada., as well as described in travelogues by Robert Binning, Lady Sheil, and Jane Dieufloy.


Mirza Habíb-i-Shírází. Credit: Simina Boicu

Táhirih, Qurratu’l-‘Ayn

The poet known as Táhirih, or Qurratu’l-‘Ayn, the first woman to follow the Báb, was rare among her gender at that time for her education and erudition. This ghazal, known as her signature piece, conveys her yearning devotion to the Beloved:

I would explain all my grief
Dot by dot, point by point
If heart to heart we talk
And face to face we meet.
To catch a glimpse of thee
I am wandering like a breeze
From house to house, door to door
Place to place, street to street.
In separation from thee
The blood of my heart gushes out of my eyes
In torrent after torrent, river after river
Wave after wave, stream after stream.
This afflicted heart of mine
Has woven your love
To the stuff of life
Strand by strand, thread to thread.12Táhirih, cited in Farzaneh Milani, Veils and Words: The Emerging Voices of Iranian Women Writers (London: I. B. Tauris, 1992).

More than any other element of the Bábí experience, it was the resolve and courage of Táhirih that seems to have excited the imagination of writers. Numerous volumes have been written about her—notably recalling her singular act of publicly removing her veil—not only in Persian, Arabic, and English but extensively in Urdu. Around 1870, after Bábís travelled to Mumbai, Táhirih’s story and poetry came to be well-known in the Indian sub-continent. The influential Punjabi-born poet, politician and philosopher Allama Muhammad Iqbal listed Táhirih among those whose songs bestow constancy to the souls because their songs derive their heat from the universe of inner-heat.13Sabir Afaqi, Qurratu’l-’Ayn Táhirih in Urdu Literature, in Táhirih in History: Perspectives on Qurratu’l-Ayn from East and West, ed. Sabir Afaqi and Jan Teofil Jasion (Los Angeles: Kalimát Press), 2004, p. 31. In his Javid Nama (1932), Iqbal lists Táhirih as one of three martyr-guides.

Think you not Táhirih has left this world.
Rather she is present in the very conscience of her age.14Muhammad Iqbal, cited in Ibid., p. 31.

In Europe, as early as 1874, an Austrian novelist and women’s rights activist Marie von Najmajer, had written an epic poem, Gurret-ül-Eyn, believed to be the first composed in a Western language in honor of the new religion. Four years later, William Michael Rossetti mentioned both the Báb and Táhirih in a lecture given in various cities about the English poet Shelley.15William Michael Rossetti, in The Dublin University Magazine, (February/March 1878). Rossetti observed that Táhirih had an almost magical influence over large masses of the population, 16Ibid. and that the protagonists of Shelley’s poem, The Revolt of Islam, anticipate both her life and that of the Báb. In this work, Shelley seems to have captured the spirit of expectation of that time, foreseeing the imminent advent of two Divine beings:

And a voice said: Thou must a listener be
This day—two mighty Spirits now return,
Like birds of calm, from the world’s raging sea,
They pour fresh light from Hope’s immortal urn;
A tale of human power—despair not—list and learn!
17Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Revolt of Islam (London: C. and J. Oliver, 1818), Canto I: LVIII.

Explaining the significance of a verse from Háfiz, the Báb had said, It is the immediate influence of the Holy Spirit that causes words such as these to stream from the tongue of poets the significance of which they themselves are often times unable to apprehend.18Nabíl-i-A’ẓam, p. 259. In similar vein, Shelley had not long before declared that poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration, the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present, the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle and feel not what they inspire….19Percy Bysshe Shelley, cited in Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, ed. Donald Reiman and Sharon Powers (New York: W. W. Norton, 1977). The creative forces that accompany the pronouncements of a Manifestation of God—or even anticipate them—thus appear to prompt the spiritual sensibilities of receptive souls.

Throughout the twentieth century, Táhirih’s fame spread further abroad. The journalist and outstanding Bahá’í teacher Martha Root, who penned a monograph about her, noted that, As I have travelled in the five continents, I have seen how her life has influenced women, and men too, throughout the world.20Martha Root, Táhirih the Pure (Los Angeles: Kalímat Press, 1981), p. 43. A 1960 public sculpture in Baku, Azerbaijan, by Fuad Abdurrahmanov, depicting a woman casting aside her veil, is said to have been inspired by Táhirih.21See And, as recently as in 2017, Azerbaijan’s National Museum of History held a celebration recognizing Táhirih’s dedication and contribution to the advancement of women. Táhirih is held in high regard, explained Professor Azer Jafarov of Baku State University. She influenced modern literature, raised the call for the emancipation of women, and had a deep impact on public consciousness.22Ibid.

Around the same time that Táhirih made her appearance unveiled at the Conference of Badasht in June–July 1848, the first women’s rights convention in the United States was being held at Seneca Falls, at which was launched the women’s suffrage movement in America. In the estimation of Western women, the acts of Táhirih were interpreted through the lens of their campaign for the right to vote. In Britain in 1911, the Women’s Freedom League newspaper ran a three-part article by campaigner Charlotte Despard titled, A Woman Apostle in Persia.23Despard, Charlotte, A Woman Apostle in Persia, The Vote, Vol. IV No.101. 30 September 1911: pp.280-1. When an English Bahá’í, Mary Blomfield, petitioned King George V in person to ease the maltreatment of imprisoned suffragettes, an American Bahá’í dubbed her the Western Qurratu’l-Ayn.24Letter from Joseph Hannen to Lady Blomfield, 7 September 1914. United States Bahá’í Archives.


(L-R) Allama Muhammad Iqbal, William Michael Rossetti. Credit: Simina Boicu

Charlotte Despard. Credit: Simina Boicu

The salons of Paris

The first European novel that was set against the episode of the Báb was published in France 1891. In Un Amour au Pays de Mages, A. de Saint-Quentin—a French consular official and colleague of Gobineau’s—created a love story between a humble dervish and the daughter of a cleric in Qazvín played out amid the events of Bábí history.

Writer Jules Bois had also been so moved by the story of events in faraway Iran that, during a journey through the Holy Land, he had stopped at Mount Carmel to place flowers on the tomb of the Báb.25Jan Teofil Jasion, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in France 1911 & 1913 (Paris: Éditions bahá’íes France, 2016), p. 189.

Writing in 1925, Bois recalled that, All Europe was stirred to pity and indignation over the martyrdom of the Báb, July 9 1850 … among the littérateurs of my generation, in the Paris of 1890 the martyrdom of the Báb was still as fresh a topic as had been the first news of his death. We wrote poems about him. Sarah Bernhardt entreated Catulle Mendès for a play on the theme of this historic tragedy …. I was asked to write a drama entitled Her Highness the Pure, dealing with the story of another illustrious martyr of the same cause—a woman, Quarratul-Ayn [sic] the Persian Joan of Arc and the leader of emancipation for women of the Orient.26Jules Bois, cited in ibid.

Neither of the proposed plays of Mendès or Bois materialized. However, Bois did meet ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Paris on 11 November 1911, at the home of composer Hermann Bemberg, where they performed extracts from an opera they had co-written with Eustache de Lorey, titled Leïlah. Set in Shíráz, the opera contained many references to mystical Persia. It was staged in Monaco three years later.27Jan Teofil Jasion, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in France 1911 & 1913.

In 1910, the Paris-based American heiress Laura Clifford Barney—who would be active in the International Council of Women in the following decades and its representative to the League of Nations—had published her own, never performed, drama, God’s Heroes, centering on Táhirih. In its preface, Barney described her play as but a fragment of one of the most dramatic periods in history and … but a limited presentation of the most vast philosophy yet known to man.

The theatre, like all other forces may upbuild or shatter. It can be a mighty instrument for spreading ideas broadcast; and, for this reason, I believe that the wave of regeneration, which is sweeping over the world, should take form also on the stage; and am trying, therefore, in this play, to bring before the public some of the most inspiring events of our epoch.

I have, therefore, presented to the public a few episodes in the early Babi history, and only a few of the noted characters of that period: yet, even this imperfect sketch should suffice to give an idea of the vastness of the movement.28Laura Clifford Barney, God’s Heroes (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1910), p. v–vi.

Barney thought it preferable not to portray the Báb or Bahá’u’lláh in any way for certain beings cannot be adequately impersonated. However there is no such self-restriction in her depiction of Táhirih, who stands forth in history as an example of what the disciple of truth can accomplish despite hampering custom, and violent persecution.29Ibid., p. viii.

At one moment in the play, Barney gives to Táhirih words that proclaim the advent of a new Revelation:

From all sides I see new life rising; the struggle between the hardened soil and the maturing seed is over. Soon, upon all things, summer will spread victorious beauty!
… even the end has a beginning for spring will again conquer, sister mine. So, when, as now, ancient faiths have become rigid in cold dead forms, a new faith germinates in the souls of men.30Ibid. p. 17.

By then a devoted Bahá’í herself, Barney’s intention in presenting this history on stage was made clear to her readers at the outset: … I hope, notwithstanding, to give you a glimpse of Eastern glory, and to awaken your interest in this great movement, the universal religion—Bahaism, which is today bringing peace and hope to expectant humanity.31Ibid. p. viii.


Jules Bois. Credit: Simina Boicu

Laura Clifford Barney. Credit: Simina Boicu

A Russian stage drama

In God Passes By, published in 1944 to mark the centenary of the Declaration of the Báb, Shoghi Effendi recorded for posterity another piece of theater:

A Russian poetess, member of the Philosophic, Oriental and Bibliological Societies of St. Petersburg, published in 1903 a drama entitled The Báb, which a year later was played in one of the principal theatres of that city, was subsequently given publicity in London, was translated into French in Paris, and into German by the poet Fiedler, was presented again, soon after the Russian Revolution, in the Folk Theatre in Leningrad, and succeeded in arousing the genuine sympathy and interest of the renowned Tolstoy, whose eulogy of the poem was later published in the Russian press.32Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1999), p. 56.

The drama was penned by Izabella Grinevskaia, who probably first encountered the story of the Báb while researching in a St. Petersburg academic library. Several Russian scholars—including Aleksander Kazembeg, Albert Dorn, Captain A. M. Tumansky and Baron Victor Rozen—had published articles about the Báb. Published in April 1903, Grinevskaia’s play, received favorable reviews in the press, some of which quoted from it at length. One noted that the story could move a Russian as well as a Persian. It is almost strange that in our literature no-one has come to write about such a wonderful, true-to-life tragedy.33Jan Teofil Jasion, Táhirih on the Russian Stage, in Táhirih in History, p. 233. First seen in St. Petersburg on 4 January 1904, the work conveyed its message of peace, love, tolerance, and brotherhood so successfully that, after four performances, it was banned for five years by the Tsar’s censor. It was, however, performed in Baku on 28 April and Astrakhan during the first week of December 1904. A second edition was published in 1916 and staged the following year. In 1922 the last recorded staging took place in Ashgabat in Turkmenistan.

Among those who praised Grinevskaia’s play was Leo Tolstoy. A Russian journalist visiting the great author in 1903, described finding Tolstoy deeply immersed in reading the drama and was charged by him to give his admiring appreciation to it author. 34Moojan Momen, The Bábí and Bahá’í Religions 1844–1944. p. 51. But Tolstoy’s curiosity about the Báb preceded his receiving Grinevskaia’s text. In April 1899, for example, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke paid a visit to Tolstoy with the Russian psychoanalyst Lou Andreas-Salomé and her husband, the orientalist Friedrich Carl Andreas, who had published a paper about the Bábís. Salomé later reported that Tolstoy paid little attention to her and Rilke, rather his interest was more focused on deep and invigorating discussions about the Bábí movement with her husband.35Sasha Dehghani, Die ‘persische Jeanne d’Arc’: Zum Nachleben einer Märtyrerin,, Trajekte (Berlin) nr.15 (Oktober 2007).

In a letter to Grinevskaia, Tolstoy wrote, I have known of the Bábís for a long time and am much interested in their teachings. It seems to me that they have a great future … because they have thrown away the artificial superstructures which separate [the religions] from one another and are aiming at uniting all mankind in one religion …. And therefore, in that it educates men to brotherhood and equality and to the sacrificing of their sensual desires in God’s service, I sympathise with Bábism with all my heart.36Moojan Momen, The Bábí and Bahá’í Religions 1844–1944. p. 55.


Isabella Grinevskaia. Credit: Simina Boicu

Leo Tolstoy. Credit: Simina Boicu

Response in the twentieth century

The Báb and His followers were thus a source of curiousity and inspiration to many writers, intrigued by His teachings and captivated by the heartbreak of their story. Later, as the Heroic Age of Bahá’í history came to an end with the passing of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in 1921, the Bahá’í Faith, under the direction of its Guardian, Shoghi Effendi, began to evolve into a distinct and independent, world-embracing religion, spreading to an ever-increasing number of territories. One of the reasons for Shoghi Effendi’s translation of The Dawn-Breakers: Nabíl’s Narrative of the Early Days of the Bahá’í Revelation was to give newer Bahá’ís in the West both a vivid introduction to the origins of their Faith, much of which was unknown to them, and an inspirational tool to encourage their own sacrificial services in the Faith’s progress. It was also the Guardian’s hope that The Dawn-Breakers would provide artists with source material for their work: It is surely true that the spirit of these heroic souls will stir many artists to produce their best. It is such lives that in the past inspired poets and moved the brush of the painters.37Shoghi Effendi, cited in Extracts from the Bahá’í Writings on the Subject of the Importance of the Arts in Promoting the Faith, Compilation of Compilations Prepared by the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice, vol. 3 (Ingleside: Bahá’í Publications Australia, 2000), pp. 27–28.

In comparison to the outpouring of those early decades of literary responses to the Báb, general works inspired by the Bábí period may have dwindled for much of the 20th century. However, following the publication of The Dawn-Breakers up until today, Bahá’ís themselves have paid homage to the Báb and the heroes of Bábí history through countless works of art, poetry, theater, film, and music, in a wide range of languages and forms of cultural expression. Two American Bahá’ís who received widespread public acclaim in the pursuit of their art and deserve brief mention here, to exemplify how The Dawn-Breakers has impacted upon creative practitioners, are the painter Mark Tobey and the poet Robert Hayden.

When Tobey was on his second pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1935, Shoghi Effendi told him that he was free to depict the early heroes of the Faith but not its Founders. Up until that time, some of the early western Bahá’ís who were painters had not attempted to illustrate any events from Bábí history, let alone attempt to convey more mystical concepts. Tobey, however, conversant with the moves toward abstraction in modernist European painting, found that his emerging visual language could be deployed not only for evoking historical events but also metaphysical ideas.

One of Tobey’s most explicit Bábí-inspired works is Movement Around a Martyr (1938). In it, he draws on his deep knowledge of renaissance art, especially the pietà figure of the martyred Christ, to depict the physical and spiritual forces that circle about a saintly figure who has been put to death. The entire image, which from a distance might be read as an all-seeing eye or maelstrom, spirals out of a small central circle, perhaps the Primal Point, as the Báb described Himself, from which has been generated all created things. 38The Báb, Selections from the Writings of the Báb (Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 1982), p. 12. Swirling around the martyred figure, one lifeless arm hanging down, are mourners and worshippers, priests and helmeted guards, while more amorphous angelic figures circle above. In this work, Tobey draws an explicit parallel between the Bábí episode and the archetypal events from previous religious dispensations.

Meanwhile, in his poem, Dawnbreaker, the distinguished American poet Robert Hayden, who served from 1976 to 1978 as Consultant in Poetry to the U.S. Library of Congress, a role today known as U.S. Poet Laureate, takes as his inspiration the description of the humiliation of Hájí Sulaymán Khán, whose final punishment was to have holes gouged into his flesh into which were inserted burning candles:

with candles sconced
in weeping eyes
of wounds,

He danced
through jeering streets
to death; oh sang
against. The drumming
mockery God’s praise.
Flames nested in
his flesh

Fed the
fires that consume
us now, the fire that
will save.39Robert Hayden, Angle of Ascent (New York: Liveright, 1966), p. 80.

(L-R) Mark Tobey, Robert Hayden. Credit: Simina Boicu

A continuing story

There are two aspects to the story of the Báb—His captivating personal demeanor and the harsh treatment of His followers—that particularly seem to have sparked the imagination of writers and then later, artists. The English divine Thomas K. Cheyne recorded that the Báb’s combination of mildness and power is so rare that we have to place him in a line with super-normal men …. 40Thomas K. Cheyne, The Reconciliation of Race and Religions (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1914), p. 74. Curzon noted, that [t]ales of magnificent heroism illumine the bloodstained pages of Bábí history …. Of no small account, then, must be the tenets of a creed that can awaken in its followers so rare and beautiful a spirit of self-sacrifice.41George N. Curzon, Persia and the Persian Question (London: Frank Cass, repr. 1966), p. 501.

To this day, the Báb continues to fascinate not only Bahá’ís around the world, but scholars of history and religion, artists, musicians, writers and dramatists. Anticipating the worldwide celebrations of both the bicentenaries of Bahá’u’lláh in 2017 and the Báb in 2019, the Universal House of Justice wrote:

At the heart of these festivities must be a concerted effort to convey a sense of what it means for humanity that these two Luminaries rose successively above the horizon of the world. Of course, this will take different forms in different contexts, extending to a myriad artistic and cultural expressions, including songs, audio-visual presentations, publications and books.42Universal House of Justice, To all National Spiritual Assemblies, 18 May 2016 (Bahá’í World Centre, 2016, mimeographed), p. 1.

The bicentenary of the Birth of the Báb in October 2019 did indeed give rise to an outpouring of artistic expressions from people on every continent, a sure reminder of the profound influence that the life and mission of the Báb is continuing to have, and will increasingly exert, on artistic expression worldwide.

Much then is still to be seen and heard, drawn and painted, spoken and sung, acted upon the stage, or captured on film—as humanity increasingly responds to the advent of a Divine Revelation and its martyred Prophet-Herald, Who fascinated contemporary commentators in the middle of the nineteenth century, and Who continues to speak to hearts and minds in the twenty-first.

The author is grateful to Hillary Chapman, Sasha Dehghani, Jan Jasion, Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, Anne Gordon Perry and Louise Willneff for their assistance in the preparation of this essay.

By The Bahá'ís Magazine

The world’s great faiths have animated civilizations throughout history. Each affirms the existence of an all-loving God and opens the doors of understanding to the spiritual dimension of life. Each cultivates the love of God and of humanity in the human heart and seeks to bring out the noblest qualities and aspirations of the human being. Each has beckoned humankind to higher forms of civilization.

Over the thousands of years of humanity’s collective infancy and adolescence, the systems of shared belief brought by the world’s great religions have enabled people to unite and create bonds of trust and cooperation at ever-higher levels of social organization―from the family, to the tribe, to the city-state and nation. As the human race moves toward a global civilization, this power of religion to promote cooperation and propel cultural evolution can perhaps be better understood today than ever before. It is an insight that is increasingly being recognized and is affirmed in the work of evolutionary psychologists and cultural anthropologists.

The teachings of the Founders of the world’s religions have inspired breathtaking achievements in literature, architecture, art, and music. They have fostered the promotion of reason, science, and education. Their moral principles have been translated into universal codes of law, regulating and elevating human relationships. These uniquely endowed individuals are referred to as Manifestations of God in the Bahá’í writings, and include (among others) Krishna, Moses, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, the Báb, and Bahá’u’lláh. History provides countless examples of how these Figures have awakened in whole populations capacities to love, to forgive, to create, to dare greatly, to overcome prejudice, to sacrifice for the common good, and to discipline the impulses of humanity’s baser instincts. These achievements can be recognized as the common spiritual heritage of the human race.

Today, humanity faces the limits of a social order inadequate to meet the compelling challenges of a world that has virtually shrunk to the level of a neighborhood. On this small planet, sovereign nations find themselves caught between cooperation and competition. The well-being of humanity and of the environment are too often compromised for national self-interest. Propelled by competing ideologies, divided by various constructs of us versus them, the people of the world are plunged into one crisis after another—brought on by war, terrorism, prejudice, oppression, economic disparity, and environmental upheaval, among other causes.

Bahá’u’lláh—as the latest in the series of divinely inspired moral educators Who have guided humanity from age to age—has proclaimed that humanity is now approaching its long-awaited stage of maturity: unity at the global level of social organization. He provides a vision of the oneness of humanity, a moral framework, and teachings that, founded on the harmony of science and religion, directly address today’s problems. He points the way to the next stage of human social evolution. He offers to the peoples of the world a unifying story consistent with our scientific understanding of reality. He calls on us to recognize our common humanity, to see ourselves as members of one family, to end estrangement and prejudice, and to come together. By doing so, all peoples and every social group can be protagonists in shaping their own future and, ultimately, a just and peaceful global civilization.


One humanity, one unfolding faith

We live in a time of rapid, often unsettling change. People today survey the transformations underway in the world with mixed feelings of anticipation and dread, of hope and anxiety. In the societal, economic, and political realms, essential questions about our identity and the nature of the relationships that bind us together are being raised to a degree not seen in decades.

Progress in science and technology represents hope for addressing many of the challenges that are emerging, but such progress is itself a powerful force of disruption, changing the ways we make choices, learn, organize, work, and play, and raising moral questions that have not been encountered before. Some of the most formidable problems facing humanity—those dealing with the human condition and requiring moral and ethical decisions—cannot be solved through science and technology alone, however critical their contributions.

The teachings of Bahá’u’lláh help us understand the transformations underway. At the heart of His message are two core ideas. First is the incontrovertible truth that humanity is one, a truth that embodies the very spirit of the age, for without it, it is impossible to build a truly just and peaceful world. Second is the understanding that humanity’s great faiths have come from one common Source and are expressions of one unfolding religion.

In His writings, Bahá’u’lláh raised a call to the leaders of nations, to religious figures, and to the generality of humankind to give due importance to the place of religion in human advancement. All of the Founders of the world’s great religions, He explained, proclaim the same faith. He described religion as the chief instrument for the establishment of order in the world and of tranquility amongst its peoples and referred to it as a radiant light and an impregnable stronghold for the protection and welfare of the peoples of the world. In another of His Tablets, He states that the purpose of religion is to safeguard the interests and promote the unity of the human race, and to foster the spirit of love and fellowship amongst men. The religion of God and His divine law, He further explains, are the most potent instruments and the surest of all means for the dawning of the light of unity amongst men. The progress of the world, the development of nations, the tranquility of peoples, and the peace of all who dwell on earth are among the principles and ordinances of God. Religion bestoweth upon man the most precious of all gifts, offereth the cup of prosperity, imparteth eternal life, and showereth imperishable benefits upon mankind.


The decline of religion

Bahá’u’lláh was also deeply concerned about the corruption and abuse of religion that had come to characterize human societies around the planet. He warned of the inevitable decline of religion’s influence in the spheres of decision making and on the human heart. This decline, He explained, sets in when the noble and pure teachings of the moral luminaries who founded the world’s great religions are corrupted by selfish human ideas, superstition, and the worldly quest for power. Should the lamp of religion be obscured, explained Bahá’u’lláh, chaos and confusion will ensue, and the lights of fairness and justice, of tranquility and peace cease to shine.

From the perspective of the Bahá’í teachings, the abuses carried out in the name of religion and the various forms of prejudice, superstition, dogma, exclusivity, and irrationality that have become entrenched in religious thought and practice prevent religion from bringing to bear the healing influence and society-building power it possesses.

Beyond these manifestations of the corruption of religion are the acts of terror and violence heinously carried out in, of all things, the name of God. Such acts have left a grotesque scar on the consciousness of humanity and distorted the concept of religion in the minds of countless people, turning many away from it altogether.

The spiritual and moral void resulting from the decline of religion has not only given rise to virulent forms of religious fanaticism, but has also allowed for a materialistic conception of life to become the world’s dominant paradigm.

Religion’s place as an authority and a guiding light both in the public sphere and in the private lives of individuals has undergone a profound decline in the last century. A compelling assumption has become consolidated: as societies become more civilized, religion’s role in humanity’s collective affairs diminishes and is relegated to the private life of the individual. Ultimately, some have speculated that religion will disappear altogether.

Yet this assumption is not holding up in the light of recent developments. In these first decades of the 21st century, religion has experienced a resurgence as a social force of global importance. In a rapidly changing world, a reawakening of humanity’s longing for meaning and for spiritual connection is finding expression in various forms: in the efforts of established faiths to meet the needs of rising generations by reshaping doctrines and practices to adapt to contemporary life; in interfaith activities that seek to foster dialogue between religious groups; in a myriad of spiritual movements, often focused on individual fulfillment and personal development; but also in the rise of fundamentalism and radical expressions of religious practice, which have tragically exploited the growing discontent among segments of humanity, especially youth.

Concurrently, national and international governing institutions are not only recognizing religion’s enduring presence in society but are increasingly seeing the value of its participation in efforts to address humanity’s most vexing problems. This realization has led to increased efforts to engage religious leaders and communities in decision making and in the carrying out of various plans and programs for social betterment.

Each of these expressions, however, falls far short of acknowledging the importance of a social force that has time and again demonstrated its power to inspire the building of vibrant civilizations. If religion is to exert its vital influence in this period of profound, often tumultuous change, it will need to be understood anew. Humanity will have to shed harmful conceptions and practices that masquerade as religion. The question is how to understand religion in the modern world and allow for its constructive powers to be released for the betterment of all.


Religion renewed

The great religious systems that have guided humanity over thousands of years can be regarded in essence as one unfolding religion that has been renewed from age to age, evolving as humanity has moved from one stage of collective development to another. Religion can thus be seen as a system of knowledge and practice that has, together with science, propelled the advancement of civilization throughout history.

Religion today cannot be exactly what it was in a previous era. Much of what is regarded as religion in the contemporary world must, Bahá’ís believe, be re-examined in light of the fundamental truths Bahá’u’lláh has posited: the oneness of God, the oneness of religion, and the oneness of the human family.

Bahá’u’lláh set an uncompromising standard: if religion becomes a source of separation, estrangement, or disagreement—much less violence and terror—it is best to do without it. The test of true religion is its fruits. Religion should demonstrably uplift humanity, create unity, forge good character, promote the search for truth, liberate human conscience, advance social justice, and promote the betterment of the world. True religion provides the moral foundations to harmonize relationships among individuals, communities, and institutions across diverse and complex social settings. It fosters an upright character and instills forbearance, compassion, forgiveness, magnanimity, and high-mindedness. It prohibits harm to others and invites souls to the plane of sacrifice, that they may give of themselves for the good of others. It imparts a world-embracing vision and cleanses the heart from self-centeredness and prejudice. It inspires souls to endeavor for material and spiritual betterment for all, to see their own happiness in that of others, to advance learning and science, to be an instrument of true joy, and to revive the body of humankind.

True religion is in harmony with science. When understood as complementary, science and religion provide people with powerful means to gain new and wondrous insights into reality and to shape the world around them, and each system benefits from an appropriate degree of influence from the other. Science, when devoid of the perspective of religion, can become vulnerable to dogmatic materialism. Religion, when devoid of science, falls prey to superstition and blind imitation of the past. The Bahá’í teachings state:

Put all your beliefs into harmony with science; there can be no opposition, for truth is one. When religion, shorn of its superstitions, traditions, and unintelligent dogmas, shows its conformity with science, then will there be a great unifying, cleansing force in the world which will sweep before it all wars, disagreements, discords and struggles—and then will mankind be united in the power of the Love of God.

True religion transforms the human heart and contributes to the transformation of society. It provides insights about humanity’s true nature and the principles upon which civilization can advance. At this critical juncture in human history, the foundational spiritual principle of our time is the oneness of humankind. This simple statement represents a profound truth that, once accepted, invalidates all past notions of the superiority of any race, sex, or nationality. It is more than a mere call to mutual respect and feelings of goodwill between the diverse peoples of the world, important as these are. Carried to its logical conclusion, it implies an organic change in the very structure of society and in the relationships that sustain it.


The experience of the Bahá’í community

Inspired by the principle of the oneness of humankind, Bahá’ís believe that the advancement of a materially and spiritually coherent world civilization will require the contributions of countless high-minded individuals, groups, and organizations, for generations to come. The efforts of the Bahá’í community to contribute to this movement are finding expression today in localities all around the world and are open to all.

At the heart of Bahá’í endeavors is a long-term process of community building that seeks to develop patterns of life and social structures founded on the oneness of humanity. One component of these efforts is an educational process that has developed organically in rural and urban settings around the world. Spaces are created for children, youth, and adults to explore spiritual concepts and gain capacity to apply them to their own social environments. Every soul is invited to contribute regardless of race, gender, or creed. As thousands upon thousands participate, they draw insights from both science and the world’s spiritual heritage and contribute to the development of new knowledge. Over time, capacities for service are being cultivated in diverse settings around the world and are giving rise to individual initiatives and increasingly complex collective action for the betterment of society. Transformation of the individual and transformation of the community unfold simultaneously.

Beyond efforts to learn about community building at the grass roots, Bahá’ís engage in various forms of social action, through which they strive to apply spiritual principles in efforts to further material progress in diverse settings. Bahá’í institutions and agencies, as well as individuals and organizations, also participate in the prevalent discourses of their societies in diverse spaces, from academic and professional settings, to national and international forums, all with the aim of contributing to the advancement of society.

As they carry out this work, Bahá’ís are conscious that to uphold high ideals is not the same as to embody them. The Bahá’í community recognizes that many challenges lie ahead as it works shoulder to shoulder with others for unity and justice. It is committed to the long-term process of learning through action that this task entails, with the conviction that religion has a vital role to play in society and a unique power to release the potential of individuals, communities, and institutions.

By Violette Nakhjavání

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.

May Maxwell with her daughter Mary

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.”

May Maxwell and her
daughter Mary in Ramleh,
Egypt, in 1923.

‘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:


(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.


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:


On 4 March, Rúhíyyih Khánum cabled the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada, saying:


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


She was also delegated by him to dedicate the Temple in North America on his behalf and


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.

Amatu’l-Bahá Rúḥíyyih Khánum representing the Guardian at the All America Intercontinental Conference in
Wilmette, Illinois, in 1953.

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.

1971. Amatu’l-Bahá Rúḥíyyih Khánum helping Bahá’ís in Gbendebou, Sierre Leone, clean vegetables.

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.

Amatu’l-Bahá Rúḥíyyih Khánum presenting prizes to students of the Bahá’í school in Gangtok, Sikkim, in 1971.

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 PearlManual for PioneersThe Desire of the WorldThe 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

Amatu’l-Bahá Rúḥíyyih Khánum (née Mary Maxwell) 1910-2000

By Douglas Martin

The year 1994 marked the 150th anniversary of the declaration of His mission by the Báb (Siyyid ‘Alí-Muhammad, 1819–1850), one of the two Founders of the Bahá’í Faith. The moment invites an attempt to gain an overview of the extraordinary historical consequences that have flowed from an event little noticed at the time outside the confines of the remote and decadent society within which it occurred.

The first half of the 19th century was a period of messianic expectation in the Islamic world, as was the case in many parts of Christendom. In Persia a wave of millenialist enthusiasm had swept many in the religiously educated class of Shí‘ih Muslim society, focused on belief that the fulfillment of prophecies in the Qur’án and the Islamic traditions was at hand. It was to one such ardent seeker1Mullá Husayn-i-Bushru’í. that, on the night of 22–23 May 1844, the Báb (a title meaning Gate) announced that He was the Bearer of a Divine Revelation destined not only to transform Islam but to set a new direction for the spiritual life of humankind.

During the decade that followed, mounting opposition from both clergy and state brought about the martyrdom of the Báb, the massacre of His leading disciples and of several thousands of His followers, and the virtual extinction of the religious system that He had founded. Out of these harrowing years, however, emerged a successor movement, the Bahá’í Faith, that has since spread throughout the planet and established its claim to represent a new and independent world religion.

It is to Bahá’u’lláh (Mírzá Husayn-‘Alí, 1817–1892), that the worldwide Bahá’í community looks as the source of its spiritual and social teachings, the authority for the laws and institutions that shape its life, and the vision of unity that has today made it one of the most geographically widespread and ethnically diverse of organized bodies of people on the planet. It is from Bahá’u’lláh that the Faith derives its name and toward Whose resting place in the Holy Land that the millions of Bahá’ís around the world daily direct their thoughts when they turn to God in prayer.

These circumstances in no way diminish, however, the fact that the new Faith was born amid the bloody and terrible magnificence surrounding the Báb’s brief mission, nor that the inspiration for its worldwide spread has been the spirit of self-sacrifice that Bahá’ís find in His life and the lives of the heroic band that followed Him. Prayers revealed by the Báb and passages from His voluminous writings are part of the devotional life of Bahá’ís everywhere. The events of His mission are commemorated as annual holy days in tens of thousands of local Bahá’í communities.2The anniversary of the birth of the Báb is commemorated on the day following the occurrence of the eighth new moon in the Bahá’í year, which moves between mid-October and mid-November; His declaration, 23 or 24 May; and His martyrdom, 9 or 10 July. On the slopes of Mount Carmel, the golden-domed Shrine where His mortal remains are buried dominates the great complex of monumental buildings and gardens constituting the administrative center of the Faith’s international activities.

In contemporary public awareness of the Bahá’í community and its activities, however, the life and person of Bahá’u’lláh have largely overshadowed those of the Báb. In a sense, it is natural that this should be the case, given the primary role of Bahá’u’lláh as the fulfillment of the Báb’s promises and the Architect of the Faith’s achievements. To some extent, however, this circumstance also reflects the painfully slow emergence of the new religion from obscurity onto the stage of history. In a perceptive comment on the subject, the British historian Arnold Toynbee compared the level of appreciation of the Bahá’í Faith in most Western lands with the similarly limited impression that the mission of Jesus Christ had succeeded in making on the educated class in the Roman Empire some 300 years after His death.3Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, vol. 8 (London: Oxford, 1954). 117. Since most of the public activity of the Bahá’í community over the past several decades has focused on the demanding task of presenting Bahá’u’lláh’s message, and elaborating the implications of its social teachings for the life of society, the Faith’s 19th-century Persian origins have tended to become temporarily eclipsed in the public mind.

Indeed, Bahá’ís, too, are challenged by the implications of the extraordinary idea that our age has witnessed the appearance of two almost contemporaneous Messengers of God. Bahá’u’lláh describes the phenomenon as one of the distinguishing characteristics of the new religion and as a mystery central to the plan of God for the unification of humankind and the establishment of a global civilization.4Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh: Selected Letters, 2d rev ed (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1974), 123–24.

Fundamental to the Bahá’í conception of the evolution of civilization is an analogy to be found in the writings of both the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh. It draws a parallel between the process by which the human race has gradually been civilized and that whereby each one of its individual members passes through the successive stages of infancy, childhood, and adolescence to adulthood. The idea throws a measure of light on the relationship which Bahá’ís see between the missions of the two Founders of their religion.

Both the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh—the former implicitly and the latter explicitly—describe the human race as standing now on the brink of its collective maturity. Apart from the Báb’s role as a Messenger of God, His advent marks the fruition of the process of the refining of human nature which thousands of years of Divine revelation have cultivated. It can be viewed, in that sense, as the gateway through which humankind must pass as it takes up the responsibilities of maturity. Its brevity itself seems symbolic of the relative suddenness of the transition.5I owe this interesting suggestion to Dr. Hossain Danesh.

At the individual level, no sooner does one cross the critical threshold of maturity in his or her development than the challenges and opportunities of adulthood beckon. The emerging potentialities of human life must now find expression through the long years of responsibility and achievement: they must become actualized through marriage, a profession and family, and service to society. In the collective life of humanity, it is the mission of Bahá’u’lláh, the universal Messenger of God anticipated in the scriptures of all the world’s religions.

The room where the Báb declared His Mission.

Even as late as the end of the 19th century, however, it was the Báb who figured as the central Personality of the new religion among most of those Westerners who had become aware of its existence. Writing in the American periodical Forum in 1925, the French literary critic Jules Bois remembered the extraordinary impact which the story of the Báb continued to have on educated opinion in Europe as the 19th century closed:

All Europe was stirred to pity and indignation … . Among the littérateurs of my generation, in the Paris of 1890, the martyrdom of the Báb was still as fresh a topic as had been the first news of His death in 1850. We wrote poems about Him. Sarah Bernhardt entreated Catulle Mendès for a play on the theme of this historic tragedy.6Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By (1944; reprint, Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1974), 56, and The Bahá’í World, vol. 9, 1940–1944 (1945; reprint, Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1981), 588.

Writers as diverse as Joseph Arthur de Gobineau, Edward Granville Browne, Ernest Renan, Aleksandr Tumanskiy, A.L.M. Nicolas, Viktor Rosen, Clément Huart, George Curzon, Matthew Arnold, and Leo Tolstoy were affected by the spiritual drama that had unfolded in Persia during the middle years of the 19th century. Not until the early part of our own century did the name the Bahá’í Cause, which the new religion had already adopted for itself as early as the 1860s, replace the designation of Bábí movement in general usage in the West.7Persistent use of the term Bábí in Iranian Muslim attacks on the Bahá’í Faith over the years has tended to be a reflection of the spirit of animosity incited by its original 19th-century clerical opponents.

That this should have been the case was no doubt a reflection of the degree to which the brief but incandescent life of the Báb seemed to catch up and embody cultural ideals that had dominated European thought during the first half of the 19th century, and which exercised a powerful influence on the Western imagination for many decades thereafter. The concept commonly used to describe the course of Europe’s cultural and intellectual development during the first five or six decades of the 19th century is Romanticism. By the century’s beginning, European thought had begun to look beyond its preoccupation with the arid rationalism and mechanistic certainties of the Enlightenment toward an exploration of other dimensions of existence: the aesthetic, the emotional, the intuitive, the mystical, the natural, the irrational.Literature, philosophy, history, music, and art all responded strongly and gradually exerted a sympathetic influence on the popular mind.

In England, where the tendency was already gathering force as the century opened, one effect was to produce perhaps the most spectacular outpouring of lyrical poetry that the language has ever known. Over the next two to three decades these early insights were to find powerful echoes throughout Western Europe. A new order of things, a whole new world, lay within reach, if man would only dare what was needed. Liberated by the intellectual upheaval of the preceding decades, poets, artists and musicians conceived of themselves as the voice of immense creative capacities latent in human consciousness and seeking expression; as prophets shaping a new conception of human nature and human society. With the validity of traditional religion now shrouded in doubt, mythical figures and events from the classical past were summoned up to serve as vehicles for this heroic Ideal:

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than Death or Night;
To defy Power which seems Omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope, till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates …
This alone is Life, Joy, Empire and Victory.8Percy Bysshe Shelley, Prometheus Unbound, bk. 4, ll. 569–78.

The same longings had awakened in America in the decades immediately preceding the Civil War and were to leave an indelible imprint on public consciousness. All of the transcendentalists became deeply attracted by the mystical literature of the Orient: the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana, and the Upanishads, as well as the works of the major Islamic poets, Rúmí, Háfiz, and Sa‘dí. The effect can be appreciated in such influential writings of Emerson as the Divinity School Address:

I look for the hour when that supreme Beauty which ravished the souls of those eastern Men, and chiefly those of the Hebrews, and through their lips spoke oracles to all time, shall speak in the West also … I look for the new Teacher that shall follow so far those shining laws that He shall see them come full circle; … shall see the world to be the mirror of the soul; shall see the identity of the law of gravitation with purity of heart; and shall show … that Duty is one thing with Science, with Beauty, and with Joy.9Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Divinity School Address, Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson, S.E. Wricher, ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960), 115–16.

As the century advanced, the early Romantic optimism found itself increasingly mired in the successive disappointments and defeats of the revolutionary fervor it had helped arouse. Under the pressure of scientific and technological change, the culture of philosophical materialism to which enlightenment speculation had originally given rise gradually consolidated itself. The wars and revolutionary upheavals of the middle years of the century contributed further to a mood of realism, a recognition that great ideals must somehow be reconciled with the obdurate circumstances of human nature.

Even in the relatively sober atmosphere of Victorian public discourse, however, Romantic yearnings retained a potent influence in Western consciousness. They produced a susceptibility to spiritual impulses which, while different from that which had characterized the opening decades of the century, now affected a broad public. If the revolutionary figure of Prometheus no longer spoke to English perceptions of the age, the Arthurian legend caught up the popular hope, blending youthful idealism with the insights of maturity, and capturing the imagination of millions precisely on that account:

The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.10Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Idylls of the King: The Passing of Arthur, ll. 408–10.

It is hardly surprising that, on minds formed in this cultural milieu, the figure of the Báb should exert a compelling fascination, as Westerners became acquainted with His story in the latter years of the century. Particularly appealing was the purity of His life, an unshadowed nobility of character that had won the hearts of many among His fellow countrymen who had come as doubters or even enemies and stayed to lay down their lives in His cause. Words which the Báb addressed to the first group of His disciples suggest the nature of the moral standards He held up as goals for those who responded to His call:

Purge your hearts of worldly desires, and let angelic virtues be your adorning. … The days when idle worship was deemed sufficient are ended. The time is come when naught but the purest motive, supported by deeds of stainless purity, can ascend to the throne of the Most High and be acceptable unto Him. … Beseech the Lord your God to grant that no earthly entanglements, no worldly affections, no ephemeral pursuits, may tarnish the purity, or embitter the sweetness, of that grace which flows through you.11Muhammad-i-Zarandí (Nabil-i-A’zam), The Dawn-breakers: Nabil’s Narrative of the Early Days of the Bahá’í Revelation, translated from the Persian by Shoghi Effendi (1932; reprint, Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1974), 93.

Purity of heart was coupled with a courage and willingness for self-sacrifice that Western observers found deeply inspiring. The commentaries of Ernest Renan and others drew the inescapable parallel with the life of Jesus Christ. As the extraordinary drama of His final moments convincingly demonstrated,12The Báb, together with a young follower, was suspended by ropes from a courtyard wall in the citadel in Tabriz, and an Armenian Christian regiment, whose commander had expressed great uneasiness about the assignment, was ordered to open fire on the prisoners. When the smoke from the 750 rifles had cleared, near pandemonium broke out among the crowd of spectators thronging the roofs and walls. The Báb’s companion was standing uninjured at the foot of the wall, and the Báb Himself had disappeared from view. The entire volley had done no more than sever the ropes. The Báb had returned to the room in which He had been held, in order to complete instructions to His amanuensis, which had been interrupted by His jailers. The Armenian regiment immediately left the citadel, refusing any further participation. It would have taken only a gesture of encouragement from the Báb for the crowd, now in a state of intense excitement aroused by what they regarded as a miracle, to have delivered Him from His captors. When He did not take advantage of this opening, the authorities eventually recovered their composure and summoned a regiment of Muslim soldiers who carried out the planned execution. Though dramatic, the incident was not an isolated event in the Báb’s ministry. Four years earlier, the wealthy and powerful Governor of Isfáhán, Manúchir Khán, who was the Báb’s host and warm admirer, had offered to march on the capital with his army and induce Persia’s feeble ruler, Muhammad Sháh, to meet the Báb and listen to His message. The offer was courteously declined, and Manúchir Khán’s subsequent death led directly to the Báb’s arrest, imprisonment and execution. the Báb could have at any moment saved Himself and achieved mastery over those who persecuted Him by taking advantage of the folly of His adversaries and the superstition of the general populace. He scorned to do so, and accepted death at the hands of His enemies only when satisfied that His mission had been completed in its entirety and in conformity with the Will of God. His followers, who had divested themselves of all earthly attachments and advantages, were barbarously massacred by adversaries who had sworn on the Qur’án to spare their lives and their honor, and who shamefully abused their wives and children after their deaths. Renan writes:

Des milliers de martyrs sont accourus pour lui avec l’allégresse au devant de la mort. Un jour sans pareil peut-être dans l’histoire du monde fut celui de la grande boucherie qui se fit des Bábís, à Téhéran. On vit ce jour-là dans les rues et les bazars de Téhéran, dit un narrateur qui a tout su d’original, un spectacle que la population semble devoir n’oublier jamais. … Enfants et femmes s’avançaient en chantant un verset qui dit: En vérité nous venons de Dieu et nous retournons à Lui.13Ernest Renan, Les Apôtres, translated from the French by William G. Hutchison (London: Watts & Co., 1905), 134. For his sake, thousands of martyrs flocked to their death. A day unparalleled perhaps in the world’s history was that of the great massacre of the Bábís at Teheran. ‘On that day was to be seen in the streets and bazaars of Teheran,’ says a narrator, who has first-hand knowledge, ‘a spectacle which it does not seem that the populations can ever forget…. Women and children advanced, singing a verse, which says: In truth we come from God, and unto him we return.’ The narrator referred to is J.A. de Gobineau, 3d ed., Les Religions et les Philosophies dan l’Asie Centrale (Paris: Ernest Leroux, 1900), 304 et seq.

Purity of heart and moral courage were matched by an idealism with which most Western observers could also readily identify. By the 19th century, the Persia to which the Báb addressed Himself and which had once been one of the world’s great civilizations, had sunk to an object of despair and contempt among foreign visitors. A population ignorant, apathetic, and superstitious in the extreme was the prey of a profoundly corrupt Muslim clergy and the brutal regime of the Qájár shahs. Shí‘ih Islam had, for the most part, degenerated into a mass of superstitions and mindless legalisms. Security of life and property depended entirely on the whims of those in authority.

Such was the society that the Báb summoned to reflection and self-discipline. A new age had dawned; God demanded purity of heart rather than religious formulae, an inner condition that must be matched by cleanliness in all aspects of daily life; truth was a goal to be won not by blind imitation but by personal effort, prayer, meditation, and detachment from the appetites. The nature of the accounts which Western writers like Gobineau, Browne, and Nicolas were later to hear from surviving followers of the Báb can be appreciated from the words in which Mullá Husayn-i-Bushrú’í described the effect on him of his first meeting with the Báb:

I felt possessed of such courage and power that were the world, all its peoples and its potentates, to rise against me, I would, alone and undaunted, withstand their onslaught. The universe seemed but a handful of dust in my grasp. I seemed to be the Voice of Gabriel personified, calling unto all mankind: Awake, for, lo! the morning Light has broken.14The Dawn-breakers, 65.

European observers, visiting the country long after the Báb’s martyrdom, were struck by the moral distinction achieved by Persia’s Bahá’í community. Explaining to Western readers the success of Bahá’í teaching activities among the Persian population, in contrast to the ineffectual efforts of Christian missionaries, E.G. Browne said:

To the Western observer, however, it is the complete sincerity of the Bábís [sic], their fearless disregard of death and torture undergone for the sake of their religion, their certain conviction as to the truth of their faith, their generally admirable conduct towards mankind and especially towards their fellow-believers, which constitutes their strongest claim on his attention.15E.G. Browne, introduction to Myron H. Phelps, Life and Teachings of Abbas Effendi, 2d rev ed (New York; London: G.P. Putname’s Sons: The Knickerbocker Press, 1912), xvi.

The figure of the Báb appealed strongly also to aesthetic sensibilities which Romanticism had awakened. Apart from those of His countrymen whose positions were threatened by His mission, surviving accounts by all who met Him agree in their description of the extraordinary beauty of His person and of His physical movements. His voice, particularly when chanting the tablets and prayers He revealed, possessed a sweetness that captivated the heart. Even His clothing and the furnishings of His simple house were marked by a degree of refinement that seemed to reflect the inner spiritual beauty that so powerfully attracted His visitors.

Particular reference must be made to the originality of the Báb’s thought and the manner in which He chose to express it. Throughout all the vicissitudes of the 19th century, the European mind had continued to cling to the ideal of the ‘man of destiny’ who, through the sheer creative force of his untrammeled genius, could set a new course in human affairs. At the beginning of the century, Napoleon Bonaparte had seemed to represent such a phenomenon, and not even the disillusionment that had followed his betrayal of the ideal had discouraged the powerful current of individualism that was one of the Romantic movement’s principal legacies to the century and, indeed, to our own.

Out of the Báb’s writings emerges a sweeping new approach to religious truth. Its sheer boldness was one of the principal reasons for the violence of the opposition that His work aroused among the obscurantist Muslim clergy who dominated all serious discourse in 19th-century Persia. These challenging concepts were matched by the highly innovative character of the language in which they were communicated.

In its literary form, Arabic possesses an almost hypnotic beauty—a beauty which, in the language of the Qur’án, attains levels of the sublime which Muslims of all ages have regarded as beyond imitation by mortal man. For all Muslims, regardless of their sect, culture, or nation, Arabic is the language of Revelation par excellence. The proof of the Divine origin of the Qur’án lay not chiefly in its character as literature, but in the power its verses possessed to change human behavior and attitudes. Although, like Jesus and Muhammad before Him, the Báb had little formal schooling, He used both Arabic and His native Persian, alternately, as the themes of His discourse required.

To His hearers, the most dramatic sign of the Báb’s spiritual authority was that, for the first time in more than 12 centuries, human ears were privileged to hear again the inimitable accents of Revelation. Indeed, in one important respect, the Qur’án was far surpassed. Tablets, meditations, and prayers of thrilling power flowed effortlessly from the lips of the Báb. In one extraordinary period of two days, His writings exceeded in quantity the entire text of the Qur’án, which represented the fruit of 23 years of Muhammad’s prophetic output. No one among His ecclesiastical opponents ventured to take up His public challenge: Verily We have made the revelation of verses to be a testimony for Our message to you. i.e., In the Qur’án God had explicitly established the miracle of the Book’s power as His sole proof. Can ye produce a single letter to match these verses? Bring forth, then, your proofs ….16The Báb, Selections from the Writings of the Báb (Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 1976), 43.

Moreover, despite His ability to use traditional Arabic forms when He chose to do so, the Báb showed no hesitancy in abandoning these conventions as the requirements of His message dictated. He resorted freely to neologisms, new grammatical constructions, and other variants on accepted speech whenever He found existing terms inadequate vehicles for the revolutionary new conception of spiritual reality He vigorously advanced. Rebuked by learned Shí‘ih mujtahids at His trial in Tabríz (1848) for violations of the rules of grammar, the Báb reminded those who followed Him that the Word of God is the Creator of language as of all other things, shaping it according to His purpose.17The Dawn-breakers, 321–22. Through the power of His Word, God says BE, and it is.

The principle is as old as prophetic religion;—is indeed, central to it:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. … He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.18John 1:1–10, Authorized (King James) Version.

The implications for humanity’s response to the Messenger of God at His advent is touched on in a passage of one of Bahá’u’lláh’s major works, The Four Valleys. Quoting the Persian poet Rúmí, He says:

The story is told of a mystic knower who went on a journey with a learned grammarian for a companion. They came to the shore of the Sea of Grandeur. The knower, putting his trust in God, straightway flung himself into the waves, but the grammarian stood bewildered and lost in thoughts that were as words that are written on water. The mystic called out to him, Why dost thou not follow? The grammarian answered, O brother, what can I do? As I dare not advance, I must needs go back again. Then the mystic cried, Cast aside what thou hast learned from Síbavayh and Qawlavayh, from Ibn-i-Ḥájib and Ibn-i-Málik, and cross the water.

With renunciation, not with grammar’s rules, one must be armed:
Be nothing, then, and cross this sea unharmed.19Bahá’u’lláh, The Call of the Divine Beloved (Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 219), 88–89. At the time of this article’s original publication, an earlier translation of The Four Valleys was used. This article has been updated to reflect the new authorized translation of the work.

For the young seminarians who most eagerly responded to Him, the originality of the Báb’s language, far from creating an obstacle to their appreciation of His message, itself represented another compelling sign of the Divine mission He claimed. It challenged them to break out of familiar patterns of perception, to stretch their intellectual faculties, to discover in this new Revelation a true freedom of the spirit.

However baffling some of the Báb’s writings were to prove for His later European admirers, the latter also perceived Him to be a unique figure, one who had found within His own soul the vision of a transcendent new reality and who had acted unhesitatingly on the imperative it represented. Most of their commentaries tended to reflect the Victorian era’s dualistic frame of mind and were presented as scientifically motivated observations of what their authors considered to be an important religious and cultural phenomenon. In the introduction to his translation of A Traveler’s Narrative, for example, the Cambridge scholar Edward Granville Browne took pains to justify the unusual degree of attention he had devoted to the Bábí movement in his research work:

…here he [the student of religion] may contemplate such personalities as by lapse of time pass into heroes and demi-gods still unobscured by myth and fable; he may examine by the light of concurrent and independent testimony one of those strange outbursts of enthusiasm, faith, fervent devotion, and indomitable heroism—or fanaticism, if you will—which we are accustomed to associate with the earlier history of the human race; he may witness, in a word, the birth of a faith which may not impossibly win a place amidst the great religions of the world.20E.G. Browne, Introduction to A Traveler’s Narrative: Written to Illustrate the Episode of the Báb, by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Trans. E.G. Browne (New York: Bahá’í Publishing Committee, 1930), viii.

The electrifying effect that the phenomenon exerted, however—even on a cautious and scientifically trained European intellect and after the passage of several decades—can be appreciated from Browne’s concluding remarks in a major article in Religious Systems of the World, published in 1892, the year of Bahá’u’lláh’s passing:

I trust that I have told you enough to make it clear that the objects at which this religion aims are neither trivial nor unworthy of the noble self-devotion and heroism of the Founder and his followers. It is the lives and deaths of these, their hope which knows no despair, their love which knows no cooling, their steadfastness which knows no wavering, which stamp this wonderful movement with a character entirely its own. … It is not a small or easy thing to endure what these have endured, and surely what they deemed worth life itself is worth trying to understand. I say nothing of the mighty influence which, as I believe, the Bábí faith will exert in the future, nor of the new life it may perchance may breathe into a dead people; for, whether it succeed or fail, the splendid heroism of the Bábí martyrs is a thing eternal and indestructible.21E.G. Browne, Bábíism, Religious Systems of the World, 3d ed (London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co. and New York: MacMillan & Co., 1892), 352–53.

So powerful was this impression that most Western observers tended to lose sight of the Báb’s purpose through fascination with His life and person. Browne himself, whose research made him pre-eminent among the second generation of European authorities on the Bábí movement, largely failed to grasp the role the Báb’s mission played in preparing the way for the work of Bahá’u’lláh or, indeed, the way in which the achievements of the latter represented the Báb’s eventual triumph and vindication.22Browne’s objectivity appears to have been clouded, as well, by his hope that the Bábís would focus their energies on the political reform of Persia itself. Criticizing what he saw as Bahá’u’lláh’s diversion of Bahá’í energies from domestic politics to the cause of world unity, he complained that … just now it is men who love their country above all else that Persia needs. English introduction to the Nuqtatu’l-Káf, cited in H.M. Balyuzi, Edward Granville Browne and the Bahá’í Faith (London: George Ronald, 1970), 88. The French writer A.L.M. Nicolas was much more fortunate, in part simply because he lived long enough to benefit from a greater historical perspective. Initially antagonistic toward what he saw as Bahá’u’lláh’s supplanting of the Báb, he came finally to appreciate the Bahá’í view that the Báb was one of two successive Manifestations of God whose joint mission is the unification and pacification of the planet.23The Bahá’í World, vol. 9, 1940–44 (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1945), 584–85.

This brief historical framework will be of assistance in understanding the thrust of the Báb’s teachings. In one sense, His message is abundantly clear. As He repeatedly emphasized, the purpose of His mission and the object of all His endeavors was the proclamation of the imminent advent of Him Whom God will make manifest, that universal Manifestation of God anticipated in religious scriptures throughout the ages of human history. Indeed, all of the laws revealed by the Báb were intended simply to prepare His followers to recognize and serve the Promised One at His advent:

We have planted the Garden of the Bayán [i.e., His Revelation] in the name of Him Whom God will make manifest, and have granted you permission to live therein until the time of His manifestation; …24Selections from the Writings of the Báb, 135.

The Báb’s mission was to prepare humanity for the coming of an age of transformation beyond anything the generation that heard Him would be able to understand. Their duty was to purify their hearts so that they could recognize the One for Whom the whole world was waiting and serve the establishment of the Kingdom of God. The Báb was thus the Door through which this long-awaited universal theophany would appear.

At the time of the appearance of Him Whom God will make manifest the most distinguished among the learned and the lowliest of men shall both be judged alike. How often the most insignificant of men have acknowledged the truth, while the most learned have remained wrapt in veils.25Ibid., 91.

Significantly, the initial references to the Promised Deliverer appear in the Báb’s first major work, the Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’, passages of which were revealed by Him on the night of the declaration of His mission. The entire work is ostensibly a collection of commentaries on the Súrih of Joseph in the Qur’án, which the Báb interprets as foreshadowing the coming of the Divine Joseph, that Remnant of God Who will fulfill the promises of the Qur’án and of all the other scriptures of the past. More than any other work, the Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’ vindicated for Bábís the prophetic claims of its Author and served, throughout the early part of the Báb’s ministry, as the Qur’án or the Bible of His community.

O peoples of the East and the West! Be ye fearful of God concerning the Cause of the true Joseph and barter Him not for a paltry price established by yourselves, or for a trifle of your earthly possessions, that ye may, in very truth, be praised by Him as those who are reckoned among the pious who stand nigh unto this Gate.26Selections from the Writings of the Báb, 49.

In 1848, only two years before His martyrdom, the Báb revealed the Bayán, the book which was to serve as the principal repository of His laws and the fullest expression of His theological doctrines. Essentially the book is an extended tribute to the coming Promised One, now invariably termed Him Whom God will make manifest. The latter designation occurs some 300 times in the book, appearing in virtually every one of its chapters, regardless of their ostensible subject. The Bayán and all it contains depend upon His Will; the whole of the Bayán contains in fact nought but His mention; the Bayán is a humble gift from its Author to Him Whom God will make manifest; to attain His Presence is to attain the Presence of God. He is the Sun of Truth, the Advent of Truth, the Point of Truth, the Tree of Truth:27Persian Bayán, unpublished manuscript. References to units and chapters 7.1; 5.7; 4.1; and 7.11.

I swear by the most holy Essence of God—exalted and glorified be He—that in the Day of the appearance of Him Whom God shall make manifest a thousand perusals of the Bayán cannot equal the perusal of a single verse to be revealed by Him Whom God shall make manifest.28Selections from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, 104.

Some of the most powerful references to the subject are contained in tablets which the Báb addressed directly to Him Whom God would soon make manifest:

Out of utter nothingness, O great and omnipotent Master, Thou hast, through the celestial potency of Thy might, brought me forth and raised me up to proclaim this Revelation. I have made none other but Thee my trust; I have clung to no will but Thy Will. Thou art, in truth, the All-Sufficing and behind Thee standeth the true God, He Who overshadoweth all things.29Ibid., 59.

Apart from this central theme, the Báb’s writings present a daunting problem for even those Western scholars familiar with Persian and Arabic. To a considerable degree, this is due to the fact that the works often address minute matters of Shí‘ih Islamic theology which were of consuming importance to His listeners, whose minds had been entirely formed in this narrow intellectual world and who could conceive of no other. The study of the organizing spiritual principles within these writings will doubtless occupy generations of doctoral candidates as the Bahá’í community continues to expand and its influence in the life of society consolidates. For the Bábís, who received the writings at first hand, a great deal of their significance lay in their demonstration of the Báb’s effortless mastery of the most abstruse theological issues, issues to which His ecclesiastical opponents had devoted years of painstaking study and dispute. The effect was to dissolve for the Báb’s followers the intellectual foundations on which the prevailing Islamic theological system rested.

A feature of the Báb’s writings which is relatively accessible is the laws they contain. The Báb revealed what is, at first sight, the essential elements of a complete system of laws dealing with issues of both daily life and social organization. The question that comes immediately to the mind of any Western reader with even a cursory familiarity with Bábí history is the difficulty of reconciling this body of law which, however diffuse, might well have prevailed for several centuries, with the Báb’s reiterated anticipation that He Whom God will make manifest would shortly appear and lay the foundations of the Kingdom of God. While no one knew the hour of His coming, the Báb assured several of His followers that they would live to see and serve Him. Cryptic allusions to the year nine and the year nineteen heightened the anticipation within the Bábí community. No one could falsely claim to be He Whom God will make manifest, the Báb asserted, and succeed in such a claim.

It is elsewhere that we must look for the immediate significance of the laws of the Bayán. The practice of Islam, particularly in its Shí‘ih form, had become a matter of adherence to minutely detailed ordinances and prescriptions, endlessly elaborated by generations of mujtahids, and rigidly enforced. The sharí‘a, or system of canon law, was, in effect, the embodiment of the clergy’s authority over not only the mass of the population but even the monarchy itself. It contained all that mankind needed or could use. The mouth of God was closed until the Day of Judgment when the heavens would be cleft asunder, the mountains would dissolve, the seas would boil, trumpet blasts would rouse the dead from their graves, and God would come down surrounded by angels rank on rank.

For those who recognized the Báb, the legal provisions of the Bayán shattered the clergy’s institutional authority at one blow by making the entire sharí‘a structure irrelevant.30The challenge came into sharp focus for the Báb’s leading followers at a conference held at the small hamlet of Badasht in 1848. Interestingly, the figure who took the lead in bringing about a realization of the magnitude of the spiritual and intellectual changes set in motion by the Báb was a woman, the gifted poetess Táhirih who was also later to suffer martyrdom for her beliefs. God had spoken anew. Challenged by a superannuated religious establishment which claimed to act in the name of the Prophet, the Báb vindicated His claim by exercising, in their fullness, the authority and powers that Islam reserved to the Prophets. More than any other act of His mission, it was this boldness that cost Him His life, but the effect was to liberate the minds and hearts of His followers as no other influence could have done. That so many laws of the Bayán should shortly be superseded or significantly altered by those laid down by Bahá’u’lláh in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas31The Most Holy Book, Bahá’u’lláh’s charter for a new world civilization, written in Arabic in 1873. was, in the perspective of history and in the eyes of the mass of the Bábís who were to accept the new Revelation, of little significance once the Báb’s purpose had been accomplished.

In this connection, it is interesting to note the way in which the Báb dealt with issues that had no part in His mission, but which, if not addressed, could have become serious obstacles to His work because they were so deeply and firmly imbedded in Muslim religious consciousness. The concept of jihád or holy war, for example, is a commandment laid down in the Qur’án as obligatory for all able-bodied male Muslims and one whose practice has figured prominently in Islamic societies throughout the ages. In the Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’, the Báb is at pains to include a form of jihád as one of the prerogatives of the station which He claims for Himself. He made any engagement in jihád, however, entirely dependent on His own approval, an approval which He declined to give. Subsequently, the Bayán, although representing the formal promulgation of the laws of the new Dispensation, makes only passing reference to a subject which had so long seemed fundamental to the exercise of God’s Will. In ranging across Persia to proclaim the new Revelation, therefore, the Báb’s followers felt free to defend themselves when attacked, but their new beliefs did not include the old Islamic mandate to wage war on others for purposes of conversion.32In the Kitáb-i-Aqdas Bahá’u’lláh formally abolishes holy war as a feature of religious life. See William S. Hatcher and J. Douglas Martin, The Bahá’í Faith: The Emerging Global Religion (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1985), 13–14.

In the perspective of history, it is obvious that the intent of these rigid and exacting laws was to produce a spiritual mobilization, and in this they brilliantly succeeded. Foreseeing clearly where the course on which he was embarked would lead, the Báb prepared His followers, through a severe regimen of prayer, meditation, self-discipline, and solidarity of community life, to meet the inevitable consequences of their commitment to His mission.

The prescriptions in the Bayán extend, however, far beyond those immediate purposes. Consequently, when Bahá’u’lláh took up the task of establishing the moral and spiritual foundations of the new Dispensation, He built directly on the work of the Báb. The Kitáb-i-Aqdas, the Mother Book of the Bahá’í era, while not presented in the form of a systematic code, brings together for Bahá’ís the principal laws of their Faith. Guidance that relates to individual conduct or social practice is set in the framework of passages which summon the reader to a challenging new conception of human nature and purpose. A 19th-century Russian scholar who made one of the early attempts to translate the book compared Bahá’u’lláh’s pen writing the Aqdas to a bird, now soaring on the summits of heaven, now descending to touch the homeliest questions of everyday need.

The connection with the writings of the Báb is readily apparent to anyone who examines the provisions of the Aqdas. Those laws of the Bayán which have no relevance to the coming age are abrogated. Other prescriptions are reformulated, usually through liberalizing their requirements and broadening their applications. Still other provisions of the Bayán are retained virtually in their original form. An obvious example of the latter is Bahá’u’lláh’s adoption of the Báb’s calendar, which consists of 19 months of 19 days each, with provision for an intercalaryperiod of four or five days devoted to social gatherings, acts of charity, and the exchange of gifts with friends and family.

Qur’án belonging to the Báb

Apart from the specific laws of the Bayán, the Báb’s writings also contain the seeds of new spiritual perspectives and concepts which were to animate the worldwide Bahá’í enterprise. Beginning from the belief universally accepted by Muslims that God is one and transcendent, the Báb cuts sharply through the welter of conflicting doctrines and mystical speculations that had accumulated over more than 12 centuries of Islamic history. God is not only One and Single; He is utterly unknowable to humankind and will forever remain so. There is no direct connection between the Creator of all things and His creation.

The only avenue of approach to the Divine Reality behind existence is through the succession of Messengers Whom He sends. God manifests Himself to humanity in this fashion, and it is in the Person of His Manifestation that human consciousness can become aware of both the Divine Will and the Divine attributes. What the scriptures have described as meeting God,knowing God, worshiping God, serving God, refers to the response of the soul when it recognizes the new Revelation. The advent of the Messenger of God is itself the Day of Judgment. The Báb thus denies the validity of Súfí belief in the possibility of the individual’s mystical merging with the Divine Being through meditation and esoteric practices:

Deceive not your own selves that you are being virtuous for the sake of God when you are not. For should ye truly do your works for God, ye would be performing them for Him Whom God shall make manifest and would be magnifying His Name. … Ponder awhile that ye may not be shut out as by a veil from Him Who is the Dayspring of Revelation.33Selections from the Writings of the Báb, 86.

Going far beyond the orthodox Islamic conception of a succession of the Prophets that terminates with the mission of Muhammad, the Báb also declares the Revelation of God to be a recurring and never-ending phenomenon whose purpose is the gradual training and development of humankind. As human consciousness recognizes and responds to each Divine Messenger, the spiritual, moral, and intellectual capacities latent in it steadily develop, thus preparing the way for recognition of God’s next Manifestation.

The Manifestations of God—including Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad—are one in essence, although their physical persons differ, as do those aspects of their teachings that relate to an ever-evolving human society. Each can be said to have two stations: the human and the Divine. Each brings two proofs of His mission: His own Person and the truths He teaches. Either of these testimonies is sufficient for any sincerely inquiring soul; the issue is purity of intention, and this human quality is particularly valued in the Báb’s writings. Through unity of faith, reason and behavior, each person can, with the confirmations of God, reach that stage of development where one seeks for others the same things that one seeks for oneself.

Those who sincerely believe in the Messenger whose faith they follow are prepared by it to recognize the next Revelation from the one Divine Source. They thus become instruments through which the Word of God continues to realize its purpose in the life of humankind. This is the real meaning of the references in past religions to resurrection. Heaven and hell,similarly, are not places but conditions of the soul. An individual enters paradise in this world when he recognizes God’s Revelation and begins the process of perfecting his nature, a process that has no end, since the soul itself is immortal. In the same way, the punishments of God are inherent in a denial of His Revelation and disobedience to laws whose operation no one can escape.

Many of these concepts in the Báb’s writing can appeal to various references or at least intimations in the scriptures of earlier religions. It will be obvious from what has been said, however, that the Báb places them in an entirely new context and draws from them implications very different from those which they bore in any previous religious system.

The Báb described His teachings as opening the sealed wine referred to in both the Qur’án and New Testament. The Day of God does not envision the end of the world, but its perennial renewal. The earth will continue to exist, as will the human race, whose potentialities will progressively unfold in response to the successive impulses of the Divine. All people are equal in the sight of God, and the race has now advanced to the point where, with the imminent advent of Him Whom God will manifest, there is neither need nor place for a privileged class of clergy. Believers are encouraged to see the allegorical intent in passages of scriptures which were once viewed as references to supernatural or magical events. As God is one, so phenomenal reality is one, an organic whole animated by the Divine Will.

The contrast between this evolutionary and supremely rational conception of the nature of religious truth and that embodied by 19th-century Shí‘ih Islam could not have been more dramatic. Fundamental to orthodox Shí‘ism—whose full implications are today exposed in the regime of the Islamic Republic in Iran—was a literalistic understanding of the Qur’án, a preoccupation with meticulous adherence to the sharí‘a, a belief that personal salvation comes through the imitation (taqlíd) of clerical mentors, and an unbending conviction that Islam is God’s final and all-sufficient revelation of truth to the world. For so static and rigid a mindset, any serious consideration of the teachings of the Báb would have unthinkable consequences.

The Báb’s teachings, like the laws of the Bayán, are enunciated not in the form of an organized exposition, but lie rather embedded in the wide range of theological and mystical issues addressed in the pages of His voluminous writings. It is in the writings of Bahá’u’lláh that, as with the laws of the Bayán, these scattered truths and precepts are taken up, reshaped, and integrated into a unified, coherent system of belief. The subject lies far beyond the scope of this brief paper, but the reader will find in Bahá’u’lláh’s major doctrinal work, the Kitáb-i-Íqán (Book of Certitude), not only echoes of the Báb’s teachings, but a coherent exposition of their central concepts.

Finally, a striking feature of the Báb’s writings, which has emerged as an important element of Bahá’í belief and history, is the mission envisioned for the peoples of the West and admiration of the qualities that fit them for it. This, too, was in dramatic contrast to the professed contempt for farangi and infidel thought that prevailed in the Islamic world of His time. Western scientific advancement is particularly praised, for example, as are the fairness of mind and concern for cleanliness that the Báb saw Westerners on the whole as tending to display. His appreciation is not merely generalized but touches on even such mundane matters as postal systems and printing facilities.

At the outset of the Báb’s mission, the Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’ called on the peoples of the West to arise and leave their homes in promotion of the Day of God:

Become as true brethren in the one and indivisible religion of God, free from distinction, for verily God desireth that your hearts should become mirrors unto your brethren in the Faith, so that ye find yourselves reflected in them, and they in you. This is the true Path of God, the Almighty ….34Selections from the Writings of the Báb, 56.

To a British physician who treated Him for injuries inflicted during his interrogation in Tabríz, the Báb expressed His confidence that, in time, Westerners, too, would embrace the truth of His mission.

This theme is powerfully taken up in the work of Bahá’u’lláh. A series of tablets called on such European rulers as Queen Victoria, Napoleon III, Kaiser Wilhelm I, and Tsar Alexander II to examine dispassionately the Cause of God. The British monarch is warmly commended for the actions of her government in abolishing slavery throughout the empire and for the establishment of constitutional government. Perhaps the most extraordinary theme the letters contain is a summons, a virtual mandate to the Rulers of America and the Presidents of the Republics therein. They are called on to bind … the broken with the hands of justice and to crush the oppressor who flourisheth with the rod of the commandments of their Lord.35Bahá’u’lláh, The Kitáb-i-Aqdas, para. 88.

Anticipating the decisive contribution which Western lands and peoples are destined to make in founding the institutions of world order, Bahá’u’lláh wrote:

In the East the Light of His Revelation hath broken; in the West have appeared the signs of His dominion. Ponder this in your hearts, O people ….36Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1988), 13.

It was on ‘Abdu’l-Bahá that responsibility devolved to lay the foundations for this distinctive feature of the missions of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh. Visiting both Western Europe and North America in the years 1911–1913, He coupled high praise for the material accomplishments of the West with an urgent appeal that they be balanced with the essentials of spiritual civilization.

During the years of World War I, after returning to the Holy Land, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá drafted a series of letters addressed to the small body of Bahá’u’lláh’s followers in the United States and Canada, summoning them to arise and carry the Bahá’í message to the remotest corners of the globe. As soon as international conditions permitted, these Bahá’ís began to respond. Their example has since been followed by members of the many other Bahá’í communities around the world which have proliferated during subsequent decades.

To the North American believers, too, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá confided the task of laying the foundations of the democratically elected institutions conceived by Bahá’u’lláh for the administration of the affairs of the Bahá’í community. The entire decision-making structure of the present-day administrative system of the Faith at local, national, and international levels, had its origins in these simple consultative assemblies formed by the American and Canadian believers.

Bahá’ís see a parallel pattern of response to the Divine mandate, however unrecognized, in the growing leadership Western nations have assumed throughout the present century in the efforts to bring about global peace. This is particularly true of the endeavor to inaugurate a system of international order. For his own vision in this respect, as well as for the lonely courage that the effort to realize it required, the immortal Woodrow Wilson won an enduring place of honor in the writings of the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith.

Bahá’ís are likewise aware that it has been such governments as those of Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia which have taken the lead in the field of human rights. The Bahá’í community has experienced at first hand the benefits of this concern in the successful interventions undertaken on behalf of its members in Iran during the recurrent persecutions under the regimes of the Pahlavi shahs and the Islamic Republic.

Nothing of what has been said should suggest an uncritical admiration of European or North American cultures on the part of either the Báb or Bahá’u’lláh nor an endorsement of the ideological foundations on which they rest. Far otherwise. Bahá’u’lláh warns in ominous tones of the suffering and ruin that will be visited upon the entire human race if Western civilization continues on its course of excess. During His visits to Europe and America, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá called on His hearers in poignant language to free themselves, while time still remained, from racial and national prejudices, as well as materialistic preoccupations, whose unappreciated dangers, He said, threatened the future of their nations and of all humankind.

Today, a century and a half after the Báb’s mission was inaugurated, the influence of His life and words has found expression in a global community drawn from every background on earth. The first act of most Bahá’í pilgrims on their arrival at the World Centre of their Faith is to walk up the flower-bordered avenue leading to the exquisite Shrine housing the Báb’s mortal remains, and to lay their foreheads on the threshold of His resting place. They confidently believe that, in future years, pilgrim kings will reverently ascend the magnificent terraced staircase rising from the foot of the Mountain of God to the Shrine’s entrance, and place the emblems of their authority at this same threshold. In the countries from which the pilgrims come, countless children from every background and every language today bear the names of the Báb’s martyred companions—Tahirih, Quddús, Husayn, Zaynab, Vahid, Anís— much as children throughout the lands of the Roman empire began 2,000 years ago to carry the unfamiliar Hebrew names of the disciples of Jesus Christ.

Bahá’u’lláh’s choice of a resting place for the body of His Forerunner—brought with infinite difficulty from Persia—itself holds great significance for the Bahá’í world. Throughout history the blood of martyrs has been the seed of faith. In the age that is witnessing the gradual unification of humankind, the blood of the Bábí martyrs has become the seed not merely of personal faith, but of the administrative institutions which are, in the words of Shoghi Effendi, the nucleus and the very pattern of the World Order conceived by Bahá’u’lláh. The relationship is symbolized by the supreme position that the Shrine of the Báb occupies in the progressive development of the administrative center of the Bahá’í Faith on Mount Carmel.

Few there must be among the stream of Bahá’í pilgrims entering these majestic surroundings today whose minds do not turn to the familiar words in which the Báb said farewell 150 years ago to the handful of His first followers, all of them bereft of influence or wealth and most of them destined, as He was, soon to lose their lives:

The secret of the Day that is to come is now concealed. It can neither be divulged nor estimated. The newly born babe of that Day excels the wisest and most venerable men of this time, and the lowliest and most unlearned of that period shall surpass in understanding the most erudite and accomplished divines of this age. Scatter throughout the length and breadth of this land, and, with steadfast feet and sanctified hearts, prepare the way for His coming. Heed not your weaknesses and frailty; fix your gaze upon the invincible power of the Lord, your God, the Almighty. … Arise in His name, put your trust wholly in Him, and be assured of ultimate victory.37The Dawn-breakers, 94.

By Azíz Yazdí

In 1856, or thereabouts, even as the little city of Yazd, in the very heart of Persia, was carrying on its lackluster existence, something was astir. The town’s population for the most part lived in poverty and ignorance, unaware of what was happening in the rest of the world. But there was something stirring. There was hushed talk of the Báb, the new Prophet Who had been martyred, and of the Message He had brought. There were people secretly spreading the news at the risk of their lives.

A youth, only fourteen, came into contact with these people, heard the Message and wholeheartedly accepted it. Only fourteen years of age! His name was Shaykh ’Alí. He was the eldest son of the well-to-do and highly respected Hájí ‘Abdu’r-Rahím Yazdí. The family was alarmed. The boy was in grave danger. His allegiance could bring ruin to the whole family. But Shaykh ’Alí was ablaze. To distract him from the Bábí Faith, his family sent him to Kirmán with enough goods to start a business. The shop was successful but soon rumors floated back that he was meeting with the Bábís. ‘Abdu’r-Rahmín went to Kirmán and brought him home.

In Yazd the boy again attended the secret meetings and took aid to the beleaguered Bábís who were imprisoned there. One night he was so late returning home that his mother, terribly worried, waited for him at the door and when he came in, slapped him, without saying a word. In silence he took her hand, kissed it tenderly, and gazed at her with deep love.

Throughout this difficult time, in the face of the calumnies and persecutions heaped upon the Bábís by their enemies, Shaykh ’Alí displayed a kindness and fearlessness remarkable in one so young. As time passed, his character, his behavior, his attitude and his actions gradually won over the whole family. One by one they joined the Faith. Now meetings were held in the Yazdí home though the need for secrecy remained paramount. Teachers came from other cities, each with new tales. Some who came from Baghdád spoke of Bahá’u’lláh. Later they came from Adrianople, and then from ‘Akká.

My father, Hájí Muhammad, who like his brother had joined the Faith when he was fourteen, left for the Holy Land with a friend, a donkey, lots of faith and very little money. He and his companion set out to see Bahá’u’lláh and traveled over steep, rugged mountains and across hot, arid plains until they arrived in ‘Akká, around 1870. Other members of the family followed later. Hájí ‘Abdu’r-Rahím, my grandfather, left Yazd after he had been tortured, beaten and bastinadoed. The story of this ‘precious soul’, as the Master called him, his arrival in ‘Akká, and his life there, is told with tender compassion by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Memorials of the Faithful. Each member of the Yazdí family was given an assignment by Bahá’u’lláh and sent out to accomplish it. Hájí Muhammad, my father, and two other youthful believers were sent to Egypt where they worked hard for many years and eventually built up a prosperous business.

Through these believers – all young people – the Faith was first established in Alexandria, Cairo and Port Said. Although they were not free to openly teach the Faith they were on good terms with the population and were generally well-liked and respected.

My family and I lived in a suburb of Alexandria called Ramleh, a beautiful and peaceful residential district on the edge of the Mediterranean. The house in which I was born and where I lived until I was about four or five, had a separate guest house and a large garden surrounded by a wall of rough-hewn stone. Within the garden there were many lime, sweet lemon, orange and pomegranate trees as well as rose bushes. In the summer a tropical scent hung in the air. The house to which we then moved also had a large garden. Jasmine grew over the veranda, a large porch adjoining the garden. Here our family often had breakfast, with father presiding at the samovar and dispensing glasses of hot tea to the adults and, to the children, hot water with a drop of tea floating on top. Before breakfast, however, we chanted our morning prayers and heard father tell wonderful stories about his experiences with Bahá’u’lláh and the Master, or read the latest communications from the Holy Land.

It was in this setting, when I was a child of eleven, that I heard the news of the coming of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to Ramleh. The news came suddenly, without warning. The Master had left Haifa without notice on a steamer bound for Europe. Because of ill health and fatigue, He had stopped in Port Said and was coming on to Alexandria. Then the news came that He was coming to Ramleh! To Ramleh where we lived! What a miracle! There was intense joy within the Bahá’í community, within my family, within me. Of all the places in the world, He happened to choose Ramleh as His headquarters for His trips to Europe and America during the period 1910-1913. Excitement, curiosity, anticipation swirled through my mind. All I knew about ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was what my father had told us. No one in the immediate family except father and grandfather had seen Him. The only photograph was an early one taken when He was a young man in Adrianople. He was a prisoner beyond our reach, a legendary figure. Now He was free and coming to Ramleh! The Bahá’í Faith was an integral part of me, not something superimposed. In Ramleh I was surrounded by it, lived it, believed it, cherished its spiritual concepts and goals and principles. I realized its fundamental importance, its necessity for the world today. Yet my studies at the French school which I attended had opened other areas to my mind. The discoveries of science fascinated me and I believed they provided us with effective tools for the implementation of the teachings of the Faith. I prayed that I might be guided to play some role in this endeavour. I sensed that my contact with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá would provide the inspiration and the impetus to move in this direction. So I waited eagerly for the day of His arrival.

There was a crowd gathered in front of the Hotel Victoria. Suddenly there was a hush, a stillness, and I knew that He had come. I looked. There He was! He walked through the crowd – slowly, majestically, smiling radiantly as He greeted the bowed heads on either side. I could only get a vague impression as I could not get near Him. The sound of the wind and surf from the nearby shore drowned out His voice so I could hardly hear Him. Nevertheless, I went away happy.

A few days later, a villa was rented for the Master and His family, not far from the Hotel Victoria, in a lovely residential section that lay right next to the beautiful Mediterranean and the beaches. Like all the villas in that area, it had a garden with blossoms and flowering shrubs. It was there that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá chose to receive His guests – a great variety of notables, public figures, clerics, aristocrats, writers as well as poor and despairing people. I went there often, sometimes on the way home from school, sometimes on weekends. When I was not in school I spent most of my time in His time in His garden. I would wait to catch a glimpse of Him as He came out for His customary walk, or conversed with pilgrims from faraway places. To hear His vibrant and melodious voice ringing in the open air, to see Him, somehow exhilarated me and gave me hope. Quite often, He came to me and smiled and talked. There was a radiance about Him, an almost unlimited kindness and love that shone from Him. Seeing Him, I was infused with a feeling of goodness. I felt humble and, at the same time, exceedingly happy.

I had many opportunities to see the Master – as we always called Him – at meetings and on festive occasions. I especially remember the first time He came to our house to address a large gathering of believers. The friends were all gathered, talking happily, waiting. Suddenly all grew quiet. From outside, before He entered the room, I could hear the voice of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, very resonant, very beautiful. Then He swept in, with His robe flowing! He was straight as an arrow. His head was thrown back. His silver-gray hair fell in waves to His shoulders. His beard was white; His eyes were keen; His forehead, broad. He wore a white turban around an ivory-colored felt cap.

He looked at everyone, smiled and welcomed all with Khushámadíd!Khushámadíd! (Welcome! Welcome!) I had been taught that in the presence of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, I should sit or stand with my hands crossed in front of me, and look down. I was so anxious to see Him that I found myself looking up furtively now and then. He often spoke – I was privileged to hear Him speak on many subjects. For nine months it seemed like paradise. Then He left us and sailed for Europe. How dismal everything became. But there was school and there were duties. Exciting news came from Europe, and there were memories! ‘Abdu’l-Bahá came back four months later. Paradise returned. He spoke to me on several occasions, calling me Shaykh ’Alí, the name He Himself had given me, after my uncle who was the first member of the family to join the Faith. When ‘Abdu’l-Bahá spoke to me, I would look into His eyes – blue, smiling and full of love.

Again He left us, this time for America. I will never forget the scene of His departure as He came out of the house and turned to wave gazing down from the veranda above. They were greatly concerned about His safety and well-being. He was sixty-eight years old. He had suffered many hardships and endured severe trials. He had been in prison for forty years of His life and now He was undertaking this journey to a far-off country utterly different from any to which He was accustomed. But ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had made up His mind and nothing could turn Him back. He walked out of the garden gate and never looked back again. He walked for several blocks near the shore to take the electric train to Alexandria where He would board the ship that was to take Him to New York. He was followed by about thirty believers who walked silently behind Him. I was one of them. What ‘Abdu’l-Bahá accomplished in America is now history. He went to Europe and came back to Ramleh on 3 July 1913, to remain until the following December. Then He left for Haifa, never to return.

That was the first chapter of my experience with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá when I was a child between the ages of eleven and fourteen. In 1914 my family moved to Beirut, Lebanon, only a short distance north of Haifa. This opened the second chapter when I was privileged to be in the presence of the Master again, but only on special occasions. I was at that time a student at the American University of Beirut, then known as the Syrian Protestant College. In the summer of 1917 I spent my summer vacation with my uncle, Mírzá Husayn Yazdí, in his house on Mt. Carmel, a memorable two months for me. Every evening before sunset I had the bounty of being in the presence of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. I would join the other believers gathered in front of the Master’s house. The entrance had an iron gate and then a garden. He would come out with a cheerful and warm greeting, welcome all, and take His seat on the platform at the head of the wide stairs. The sun was going down, and it was very quiet. Sometimes He sat in a relaxed attitude and didn’t speak at all. Usually, however, He spoke. He talked in His commanding voice, looking straight ahead, as if He were addressing posterity. He talked about Bahá’u’lláh, about His Teachings, and about significant world events in the history of the Faith. He told stories sprinkled with humour. Often, however, He talked of the believers around the world and of their progress in spreading the Faith. Then He would become wistful. For three years, while World War I raged, He had little news from abroad. The isolation and constraint weighed heavily upon Him. Now and then He would address individuals in the audience, ask them about their families, their work, their problems; He would offer advice and help. Toward the end, He would ask one of the believers to chant verses from the poems of Bahá’u’lláh. When the chanting ended, the meeting was over. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá would arise and enter the house. Dusk would have descended over Haifa.

There were frequent visits to the Shrine of the Báb. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá would ride the old horse-drawn, bus-like vehicle up the mountain. The rest of us would walk along the rocky road, past the Pilgrim House, to the terrace overlooking the city of Haifa, the blue bay beyond and, in the distance, the hazy outline of ‘Akká. We would gather there until ‘Abdu’l-Bahá appeared and entered the Shrine. He would chant the Tablet of Visitation. Sometimes He asked Shoghi Effendi to chant this prayer. And when it was all over and the believers began to leave the Shrine, He would stand at the door with a bottle of rose water and put a little in each one’s hand. There were also trips – less frequent – to ‘Akká and Bahjí, and visits to the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh. There were also times that summer when ‘Abdu’l-Bahá went in the horse-drawn carriage to Tiberias, Lake Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee, of Biblical renown. His purpose on these trips was to oversee the grain crops which the believers, under His supervision, had planted in the Jordan Valley. The grain the Master had stored in ancient Roman pits was to be distributed to everyone who needed it, Bahá’í and non-Bahá’í alike. On 27 April 1920, in the garden of the Military Governor of Haifa, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was invested with the insignia of the Knighthood of the British Empire in recognition of His humanitarian work during the war for the relief of distress and famine.

I would sometimes go into ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s garden and talk with Ismá’íl Áqá, the gardener, an old man beloved by the Master. On one of’ my visits to the Master’s garden I noticed that everyone was quiet. When I asked why, I was told that a commission of inquiry was interrogating ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in His room. I could hear ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s clear, commanding voice through the open window above our heads. He spoke to the members of the commission with dignity and authority as if He were the investigator and they the suspected culprits.

Although He was humble in many ways, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá never really bowed to anyone; at the right time, and in the right way, He was proud. He would not compromise the Cause of God. Somehow, the confidence with which the Master spoke gave me confidence and faith that He would be spared. Those were dangerous and difficult days. The violators were active and Jamál Páshá had vowed that he would crucify ‘Abdu’l-Bahá when he returned victorious from his campaigns. When he did return, however, he was fleeing in defeat and humiliation. Despite the turbulence of this period the Master conferred upon the Bahá’ís of the west their world mission by revealing the Tablets of the Divine Plan, eight in 1916 and six in 1917.

I remember other little details from the summer of 1917, such as eating at ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s table. He ate very simply, but He insisted on others having the proper amount of food. Quite often He would come behind the guests and speak to them. I remember His standing behind my chair saying, ‘Why aren’t you eating?’ I was hungry, but my shyness prevented my eating. ‘Why aren’t you eating, Shaykh ’Alí?’ And He placed a generous portion of rice on my plate. I had to eat it! One day, when I was walking along a curved street up the hill toward the House of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, I turned the corner and there He was!

I saw the Master walking down the hill, followed by two of the believers. As was the custom, I stepped to one side and bowed. The Master stopped and walked over to me, stopped right in front of me, and looked me straight in the eyes. I shall never forget having seen ‘Abdu’l-Bahá face to face.

What was He like? His bearing was majestic, and yet He was genial. He was full of contrasts: dominant, yet humble; strong, yet tender; loving and affectionate, yet He could be very stern. He was intensely human, most keenly alive to the joys and sorrows of this life. There was no one who felt more acutely than He did the sufferings of humanity.

At the end of the summer I went to see my family in Damascus before going back to college to graduate. Then I returned home. The war seemed to drag on and on, but finally the end came. Our great concern was Haifa: what had happened there? But soon the news arrived: General Allenby and the British had occupied Haifa and the Master was safe. As the doors to the outside world opened again we began to make plans. There was much thinking and counting of pennies. I had studied civil engineering and had been hired as a draftsman by the government. From my earnings I had saved a little, but it wasn’t enough to enable me to go on with my graduate studies. News of this reached ‘Abdu’l-Bahá through my uncle, Mirza Husayn, and the Master offered me one hundred pounds which, in those days, was the equivalent of about $500.00. That made it possible for me to go. I wasted no time. In the autumn of 1919 I went to Haifa in order to say farewell to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. I was on my way to Europe – Switzerland and then Germany – for my graduate studies. I was twenty years old. This was to be my last experience with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.

I was in Haifa for two or three days. Just before I left ‘Abdu’l-Bahá called me to His room. I was there alone with Him; the only other person was Shoghi Effendi, who was in and out. The Master invited me to be seated and He asked Shoghi Effendi to bring me some tea. He spoke to me, gave me instructions on how to live, mentioned that He had hopes for me. He said, ‘You are a good boy, Shaykh ’Alí. The tea that Shoghi Effendi brought in a glass was boiling hot. I tried to drink it, but couldn’t. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said, ‘Drink! Drink your tea!’ So I had to drink it! It didn’t matter! At the very end He gave me His blessing. Then He stood up and beckoned me to Him. I went to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and He put His arms around me and kissed me on both cheeks. I never saw Him again.

Two years later, when I was at the University of California studying civil engineering, I learned of‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s ascension. Looking back, I can see that the passing of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá marked the end of an era. He was passionately devoted to the single goal of spreading the Teachings of Bahá’u’lláh. It was His mission to establish the brotherhood of man on earth in fact, as well as in principle. Nothing stopped Him; nothing deflected Him from His purpose. And yet it was not easy, for despite His high station, He was also intensely human, and He suffered a great deal. He was often very happy, and He always asked the Bahá’ís to be happy. Be happy! Be happy! That was His counsel to the believers, and He set the example. But there were times when I would see Him with the burdens of the whole world upon His shoulders.

There is something I learned from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá which I feel should not be forgotten. His life was not really His life alone; it was the life of every one of us. It was an example for every one of us. A new generation of Bahá’ís is being attracted to the Faith, and a new generation is growing up within the Bahá’í community. They will acquire knowledge of the Faith from books. But this is a living Faith. The Manifestation of God has appeared and initiated a new era. Bahá’ís have lived and worked and died for this Cause. The Faith is not something extraneous; it is not merely something beautiful, logical, just and fair – it is the very blood and fibre of our being, our very life. If men and women all over the world were to arise in ever-increasing numbers and make ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s way of life their own, each pursuing His path with zest and confidence, what would the world be like? Would not these individuals be a new race of men?

By William Sears



We drove through the newer part of ‘Akká down to the great sweep of sandy beach where a stormy wind lashed the great breakers and drove them as far into the old city as possible. We turned left and wound our way over the hill down into the old city again. The wind blew everyone’s coat collar up around the neck. The day was still gray, misty and chill. The cold crashing of the surf punctuated the silent spots in our conversation as we stood, our backs to the sea wall, gazing across the way at the House of ‘Abbúd.

The sea, the wind, the swirling mist, none could cool down the ardor that stirred inside the pilgrim as he looked upon this gray shell of a house that once sheltered the Supreme Prophet of God. This was once the sanctuary of the Supreme Pen. Its walls had resounded to the words of the Most Great Book, the Mighty Aqdas. Here were formed the laws which would stand inviolate and unaltered for a thousand years. Here were fashioned the provisions which would lay the foundation for the greatest structure in the social history of mankind. Here, those ancient prophetic words had come true, “The Government shall be upon His shoulders.” Here, the Author of the Bahá’í Faith, protected by these blessed walls from the stinging winds of the sea, had poured out the fairest fruit of all His Revelation, the Aqdas—pre-eminent among all the writings which had streamed forth in a never-ending river from His holy pen.

What a plain, unimposing structure. Two stories in height with a small balcony around the second floor front, drab gray in color, bleak in appearance, beautiful to the believer.

We were all staring silently up at the balcony which surrounds the bedroom of Bahá’u’lláh. Many long hours He had paced this balcony, looking out over the sea and down upon the very earth where we were standing. This small balcony, which can be crossed in less than ten paces, furnished almost the only outside exercise for Bahá’u’lláh in seven long years of imprisonment within the walls of this house.

House of ‘Abbúd, 1920s

Before entering the House, we walked to the small public square in the rear. Our gracious host, Leroy Ioas, holding his hat and coat-collar against a wind that whirled tiny cyclones of ‘Akká dust across the courtyard, showed us the exact spot where the Master had stood and distributed alms and food to the poor.

Salah led us back between the houses and into the side door of the House of ‘Abbúd. We crossed an inner court and started up a flight of stairs, turning to the right twice and continuing to climb until we reached the living quarters of the Holy Family. We saw the small room that held thirteen believers the first night spent in this house. We saw the upper shelf which one of the friends had slept upon that first night and, rolling over too far to one side, had toppled down upon the Master.


Back entrance, House of Abbúd, circa 1921

We removed our shoes and walked across another room of soft carpets, through a small hallway and then turned left into Bahá’u’lláh’s bedroom. Against the wall on the sea-side of the room was a long cushioned bench. Upon the south end, toward Haifa, rested the táj of Baha’u’llah, marking the place where He often would sit. A few feet away, along the south wall, was a rocking chair which He used. Upon the floor, a carpet brought with them all the way from Adrianople.

As I write this now in Johannesburg, I am back there again. I can feel my pulse accelerate and my heart beat stronger. The atmosphere of these holy places never leaves you. It comes rushing back whenever you turn to ‘Akká and Haifa. Hour after hour, month after month, year upon year, Bahá’u’lláh had moved back and forth in this room. At times He would turn left in the doorway and go out on the balcony which runs across the front of the house. After Salah chanted a prayer, we followed Bahá’u’lláh’s path to the balcony and looked out upon the turbulent sea. The wind, it seemed to us, was still whipping up the indifferent Mediterranean and driving it toward the shore, where in mighty rollers it bowed and prostrated itself before the throne of Majesty.

The room of revelation (where Baha’u’llah revealed the Aqdas) is quite different from the others. This was also ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s bedroom. It is paneled in wood which is to be found in other places associated with Him. This bedroom is in the back corner of the House. We could look down into the back courtyard. … We saw many of the books of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, His writing equipment, papers, the simple iron bed—many things that were much loved by Him and are revered by all who look upon them.

Above all else, the mind tries to take in the truth that here in this room, a room that is simplicity itself, was revealed the Book of Laws, the Most Great Book, the mightiest written testimony since the beginning of our recorded times. Its Author would cast His Shadow of guidance for five hundred thousand years!

It is too much to understand. The mind willingly surrenders and turns to examine the surroundings, the little things it can comprehend. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá sat here, He walked here, He knelt here, He looked out this window. But irresistibly your thoughts keep coming back to that one inescapable fact—it was here that Bahá’u’lláh revealed the Aqdas.

Emptying yourself of every single thing to which the mind can cling, you ask Almighty God to pour into your heart a true appreciation of this experience you are undergoing. … The presence and significance of these holy places are like hammer-blows to those of us who have lived in a world so remote from the spirit.

Those veritably spiritual thunderbolts the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh, of the Báb, and of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the room at Bahjí where Bahá’u’lláh passed away, the mansion of Mazra‘ih, the Garden of Riḍván—all had numbed the senses until the cup could not contain the flood.

Each of us said a prayer before departing from this cradle of future civilization. When we made our way downstairs, there was additional conversation, but none of it registers. The hearing was working, but the comprehension and recording instruments were unable to function. This was a mercy of God. The body must be much like an electrical system. It can successfully carry its normal “load” of power, but when subjected suddenly to an incredibly strong current, it “blows out” the fuse at its point of protection. A similar phenomenon happens to the pilgrim, several times, in fact. Something breaks the connection and permits no more impulses to register. The system cannot bear them. (Bahá’u’lláh has written of this spirit, saying of the wine of revelation that it is so inebriating to the Prophet, Himself, that the pen is stilled and can move no more.)


Bahá’u’lláh's room in the house of ‘Údi Khammár, where He revealed the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, c. 1921

The sun came out gaily for a brief moment, for the first time, as we strolled through the picturesque streets of “Old ‘Akká.” It splashed against the drab earth-colored walls and transformed them into a happy tan. We traced our way along many of the favorite walks of the Master.

We paused and took photographs in the doorway of the house of the former Mufti of ‘Akká. He had been a bitter enemy of Bahá’u’lláh. Salah, caretaker at Bahjí, told us the story of the two attempts on the life of Bahá’u’lláh made by this Mufti while Bahá’u’lláh was still in prison. Once with a hidden dagger, but Baha’u’llah before admitting him to His presence said, “Let him first cleanse his hands.” A second time, the Mufti planned to strangle the Blessed Beauty, and Bahá’u’lláh said before admitting him, “First let him cleanse his heart.” The Mufti became an ardent believer and collected all the “traditions” to be found in the Faith about ‘Akká.

What a delightful city “Old ‘Akká” is to visit. Salah, who was born within its walls, greeted almost everyone. He told us many intriguing stories about its non-Bahá’í history as well. We entered a small door built in one of the lower walls of the prison, walked to the center of a cellar-like cavern. Below us excavation had been started. How strange to know that beneath the prison lies this famous church built by Richard, the Lion-hearted. The packed earth on which we stood was high up toward the top of the Gothic arches. The pillars were buried many, many feet in the solid earth below us.

Salah pointed out the house to which Bahá’u’lláh had been taken in custody when some of His followers had disobeyed His commands, quarreled with three enemies of the Faith and slew them. Bahá’u’lláh was dictating Tablets to His secretary when troops surrounded His house. Crowds gathered quickly. They shouted at Bahá’u’lláh as the Governor, sword in hand, led Him away for questioning. His innocence was established and Bahá’u’lláh was freed; the Governor apologized for his own bad behavior.

We began our approach to the prison itself. The steps up which Bahá’u’lláh had walked to enter the fortress that first time have been taken down. They have left their scar across the body of the prison wall. We all stopped and gazed up at the marks of that old stairway. This was as far as we could retrace the steps of banishment. In order to enter the prison, we had to drive around the city to the front by the sea wall.

We parked by the gate, passed the guards, and walked about three hundred yards up to the prison entrance. As you cross the small bridge over the moat, you can see the cannon balls of Napoleon embedded in the walls. They are splashed with red paint to make them easily visible. Passing through a small arched entrance, we approached the courtyard.

The prison is now a hospital for the insane and feeble-minded. You can see them exercising in the very courtyard where the believers were herded together that first day. There was a sound of heavy keys rattling in a metal door, the door swung open, and you entered the prison barracks. Passing through an ante-room of poor, unfortunate sick ones, you enter the cell-block. In the far left-hand corner is a plaque which reads: Bahá’í Holy Place. . . . This is the cell of Baha’u’llah. The plaque is written in both English and Hebrew.

We removed our shoes outside the great door, and then entered the prison cell where for over two years Bahá’u’lláh had been shut away from the world. This was the heart of the “Most Great Prison.” Even that Black Pit in Ṭihrán, the Siyáh-Chál, a place foul beyond comparison, a dungeon wrapped in thick darkness, so dreadful that no tongue could describe its loathsome smell, had not been called by such a name.

The Most Great Prison, 1907

The prison cell of Bahá'u'lláh, 1965

The cell was barren and desolate in Bahá’u’lláh’s day. Now there is a Persian carpet in the corner where He used to sit. There are five straight-backed chairs upon which the pilgrims sit. One window looks out upon the old ‘Akká. The other two windows look out upon the sea. These are the windows shown in most of the photographs.

From here Bahá’u’lláh would look out toward that spot beyond the moat where His followers would stand hoping for a glimpse of His hand waving from the window. We all stood and peered out at that same spot and to the white-capped sea beyond it. Later we walked out to that place of bliss and sorrow and looked up at these two forlorn windows. The face of the prison is bruised and scarred from shell-fire.


Plain of ‘Akká from Prison window, early 1900s

Inside the prison-cell itself, the heart is touched and saddened by the sight of that bleak, unfragrant room. True, it has been cleaned and restored, but here and there upon the floor were small fragments of paint and plaster which had fallen from the ceiling and walls. These are a grim reminder of the chilling dampness of this dismal place.

Here in this cell, where but a few paces carry you from end to end, Bahá’u’lláh spent over two years of His precious life. Here it was that Baha’u’llah, Himself, said that His sufferings had reached their culmination.

Our eyes bestowed loving prayers upon each of these places of anguish. After all these years, and even with the reformations, it is still unsanitary and foul in these barracks. The mind refuses to try to picture the misery and abomination that must have surrounded Bahá’u’lláh upon His arrival here. We know that they were herded together, deprived of food and drink, that malaria, dysentery, and the sickening heat added to their sorrows. All were ill but two.

It was here that the two brothers died the same night locked in each other’s arms. Bahá’u’lláh sold His carpet to provide for their winding sheets and burial, but the guards had kept the money and cast them into a pit unwashed and unshrouded.

This is where Bahá’u’lláh’s young son, Mírzá Mihdí, the Purest Branch, was killed. He was pacing the roof at twilight reciting his prayers. He fell through an unguarded skylight on a wooden crate below which pierced his ribs and took his life in less than a day. It was here that this sweet son pleaded with his Father, Bahá’u’lláh, that his life be not saved, but that it be offered as a ransom so that the pilgrims, who so longed for His healing Presence, might be permitted to attain their hearts’ desire. At his tomb in the Monument gardens, we repeated the words of Baha’u’llah written about him:

“Thou art the trust of God and His treasure in this land. Erelong will God reveal through thee that which He hath desired.”

From here Bahá’u’lláh wrote many of His tablets to the kings of the earth, proclaiming that the only remedy for the ills of the world was the union of all its peoples in one common faith, and that only a divine, inspired Physician could bring this to pass.

Many were the wholesome truths that flowed from that Supreme Pen within this prison cell. Each of these tablets and writings took on a new force since we had come to the scene of their origin.

The doors that did not open for Bahá’u’lláh for two years, swing wide for you, then grind closed upon their hinges. We put on our shoes, everyone silent, lost in the weight of thoughts which held words down, unformed.

This was the last stop in ‘Akká. We were grateful. We wanted no conversation; no invasion of that place the mind had set aside for reflecting upon this unequaled experience.

There was no receptiveness left to truly appreciate the stories told as we descended the stairs; the room below where the rest of the pilgrims had been quartered, the place where the Master had made broth for all—made broth with little more than air for ingredients. His words spoken in London sent another sliver of pain into the body. He had made so much broth in those days, He said, that He could make a very good broth with a very little. How the Master loved His wonderful Father. He told of this loathsome prison. How Bahá’u’lláh would call the pilgrims together, would make them laugh at their troubles, until they forgot their stone beds, the lack of food and water. He banished the pain of their illness and the ravages of their fever. He would tell them stories and lift their hearts. He would start them to laughing so loudly that they must be cautioned for fear the sentinels would believe they were mad if they could laugh and enjoy themselves in these conditions of utter dreadfulness.

What tenderness must have been in the Master’s eyes as He placed His graceful hand upon the luxurious furniture of the Western world and said, “We had no chairs such as this in the prison of ‘Akká; no soft beds to lie upon; no delicious food to nourish us. But I would not exchange all of these days for one moment of the sweetness of those hours in the presence of the Blessed Beauty.”


City of ‘Akká, c. 1919

Seeing these poor, unfortunate inmates of the asylum for the last time, one thinks: How like the entire world is this prison barracks. These pitiful wretches, unbalanced, living in another dead world (like all humanity) are within but a few paces of the Holy Place of Bahá’u’lláh‘ Healer of all ills.

We crossed the moat and walked out into the open air. The clouds were gone. The sun was out ruling the blue sky all by itself. The sea, a deeper blue, was still charging up to the old sea wall and plunging against its rocks. There was a queer, mingled feeling in possession of me. It was half of joy and half of sadness, gladness and heavy-heartedness, happiness and sorrow. Perhaps it was the accumulation of the day’s emotions, unsettled and unabsorbed within me. Each experience taking charge of my being at alternate intervals, just as the sea sent alternate breakers against the wall.

I did not look back. It was all locked forever in my heart.

By Marzieh Gail

The body lies crushed into a well, with rocks over it, somewhere near the center of Ṭihrán. Buildings have gone up around it, and traffic passes along the road near where the garden was.  Bushes push donkeys to one side, automobiles from across the world graze the camels’ packs, carriages rock by. Toward sunset men scoop up water from a stream and fling it into the road to lay the dust. And the body is there, crushed into the ground, and men come and go, and think it is hidden and forgotten.

Beauty in women is a relative thing. Take Laylí, for instance, whose lover Majnún had to go away into the desert when she left him, because he could no longer bear the faces of others; whereupon the animals came, and sat around him in a circle, and mourned with him, as any number of poets and painters will tell you—even Laylí was not beautiful. Sa’dí describes how one of the kings of Arabia reasoned with Majnún in vain, and how finally “It came into the king’s heart to look upon the beauty of Laylí, that he might see the face that had wrought such ruin. He bade them seek through the tribes of Arabia and they found her and brought her to stand in the courtyard before him. The king looked at her; he saw a woman dark of skin and slight of body, and he thought little of her, for the meanest servant in his harem was fairer than she. Majnún read the king’s mind, and he said, ‘O king, you must look upon Laylí through the eyes of Majnún, till the inner beauty of her may be manifest.’ ” Beauty depends on the eyes that see it. At all events we know that Ṭáhirih was beautiful according to the thought of her time.

Perhaps she opened her mirror-case one day—the eight-sided case with a lacquer nightingale singing on it to a lacquer rose—and looked inside, and thought how no record of her features had been made to send into the future. She probably knew that age would never scrawl over the face, to cancel the beauty of it, because she was one of those who die young. But perhaps, kneeling on the floor by the long window, her book laid aside, the mirror before her she thought how her face would vanish, just as Laylí’s had, and Shírín’s, and all the others. So that she slid open her pen-case, and took out the reed pen, and holding the paper in her palm, wrote the brief self-portrait that we have of her: “Small black mole at the edge of the lip—A black lock of hair by either cheek-” she wrote; and the wooden pen creaked as she drove it over the paper.

Ṭáhirih loved pretty clothes, and perfumes, and she loved to eat. She could eat sweets all day long. Once, years after Ṭáhirih had gone, an American woman traveled to ‘Akká and sat at ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s table; the food was good, and she ate plentifully, and then asked the Master’s forgiveness for eating so much. He answered: Virtue and excellence consist in true faith in God, not in having a small or a large appetite for food. … Jinab-i-Ṭáhirih had a good appetite. When asked concerning it, she would answer, “It is recorded in the Holy Traditions that one of the attributes of the people of paradise is ‘partaking of food, continually.’ ”

When she was a child, instead of playing games, she would listen to the theological discussion of her father and uncle, who were great ecclesiastics in Qazvín. Soon she could teach Islam down to the last ḥadíth! Her brother said, “We, all of us, her brothers, her cousins, did not dare to speak in her presence, so much did her knowledge intimidate us.” This from a Persian brother, who comes first in everything, and whose sisters wait upon him. As she grew, she attended the courses given by her father and uncle; she sat in the same hall with two or three hundred men students, but hidden behind a curtain, and more than once refuted what the two old men were expounding. In time some of the haughtiest ‘ulamás consented to certain of her views.

Ṭáhirih married her cousin and gave birth to children. It must have been the usual Persian marriage, where the couple hardly met before the ceremony, and where indeed the suitor was allowed only a brief glimpse of the girl’s face unveiled. Love marriages were thought shameful, and this must have been pre-arranged in the proper way. No, if she ever cared for anyone with a human love, we like to think it was Quddús, whom she was to know in later years; Quddús, who was a descendant of the Imám Ḥasan, grandson of the Prophet Muḥammad. People loved him very easily, they could hardly turn their eyes away from him. He was one of the first to be persecuted for his Master’s Faith on Persian soil—in Shíráz, when they tortured him and led him through the streets by a halter. Later on, it was Quddús who commanded the besieged men at Shaykh Ṭabarsí, and when the Fort had fallen through the enemy’s treachery, and been demolished, he was given over to the mob, in his home city of Bárfurúsh. He was led through the marketplace in chains, while the crowds attacked him. They fouled his clothing and slashed him with knives, and in the end they hacked his body apart and burned what was left. Quddús had never married; for years his mother had lived in the hope of seeing his wedding day; as he walked to his death, he remembered her and cried out, “Would that my mother were with me, and could see with her own eyes the splendor of my nuptials!”

So Ṭáhirih lived in Qazvín, the honey colored city of sunbaked brick, with her slim, tinkling poplars, and the bands of blue water along the yellow dust of the roads. She lived in a honey colored house round a courtyard, cool like the inside of an earthen jar, and there were niches in the whitewashed walls of the rooms, where she set her lamp, and kept her books, wrapped up in hand-blocked cotton cloth. But where other women would have been content with what she had, she could not rest; her mind harried her; and at last she broke away and went over the mountains out of Persia, to the domed city of Karbilá, looking for the Truth.

Then one night she had a dream. She saw a young man standing in the sky; He had a book in His hands and He read verses out of it. Ṭáhirih wakened and wrote down the verses to remember them, and later, when she found the same lines again in a commentary written by the Báb, she believed in Him. At once she spoke out. She broadcast her conversion to the Faith of the Báb, and the result was open scandal. Her husband, her father, her brothers, begged her to give up the madness; in reply she proclaimed her belief. She denounced her generation, the ways of her people, polygamy, the veiling of women, the corruption in high places, the evil of the clergy. She was not one of those who temporize and walk softly. She spoke out; she cried out for a revolution in all men’s ways; when at last she died it was by the words of her own mouth, and she knew it.

Nicolas tells us that she had “an ardent temperament, a just, clear intelligence, remarkable poise, untameable courage.” Gobineau says, “The chief characteristic of her speech was an almost shocking plainness, and yet when she spoke … you were stirred to the bottom of your soul, and filled with admiration, and tears came from your eyes.” Nabíl says that “None could resist her charm; few could escape the contagion of her belief. All testified to the extraordinary traits of her character, marveled at her amazing personality, and were convinced of the sincerity of her conviction.”

Most significant is the memory of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá . When He was a child, Ṭáhirih held Him on her lap while she conversed with the great Siyyid Yaḥyá-i-Dárábí, who sat outside the door. He was a man of immense learning. For example, he knew thirty thousand Islamic traditions by heart; and he knew the depths of the Qur’án, and would quote from the Holy Text to prove the truth of the Báb. Ṭáhirih called out to him, “Oh Siyyid! If you are a man of action, do some great deed!” He listened, and for the first time he understood; he saw that it was not enough to prove the claim of the Báb, but that he must sacrifice himself to spread the Faith. He rose and went out, and traveled and taught, and in the end he laid down his life in the red streets of Nayríz. They cut off his head, and stuffed it with straw, and paraded it from city to city.

Ṭáhirih never saw the Báb. She sent Him a message, telling her love for Him:

The effulgence of Thy face flashed forth and the rays of Thy visage arose on high;

Then speak the word “Am I not your Lord” and “Thou art, Thou art,” we will all reply.

The trumpet-call “Am I not” to greet how loud the drums of affliction beat!

At the gates of my heart there tramp the feet and camp the hosts of calamity…

She set about translating into Persian the Báb’s Commentary on the Súrih of Joseph. And He made her one of the undying company, the Letters of the Living.

We see her there in Karbilá, in the plains where more than a thousand years before, Imám Ḥusayn, grandson of the Prophet, had fallen of thirst and wounds. We see her on the anniversary of his death, when all the town was wailing for him and all had put on black in his memory, decked out in holiday clothing to celebrate the birthday of the Báb. This was a new day, she told them; the old agonies were spent. Then she traveled in her howdah, a sort of curtained cage balanced on a horse, to Baghdád and continued her teaching. Here the leaders of the Shí’ih and Sunní, the Christian and Jewish communities sought her out to convince her of her folly; but she astounded them and routed them and in the end she was ordered out of Turkish territory, and she traveled toward Persia, gathering disciples for the Báb. Everywhere princes, ‘ulamás, government officials crowded to see her; she was praised from a number of pulpits; one said, “Our highest attainments are but a drop compared to the immensity of her knowledge.” This of a woman, in a country of silent, shadow-women, who lived their quiet cycle behind the veil: marriage and sickness and childbirth, stirring the rice and baking the flaps of bread, embroidering a leaf on a strip of velvet, dying without a name.

Karbilá, Baghdád, Kirmánsháh, Hamadán. Then her father summoned her home to Qazvín, and once she was back in his house, her husband, the mujtahid, sent for her to return and live with him. This was her answer: “Say to my presumptuous and arrogant kinsman … ‘If your desire had really been to be a faithful mate and companion to me, you would have hastened to meet me in Karbilá and would on foot have guided my howdah all the way to Qazvín. I would … have aroused you from your sleep of heedlessness and would have shown you the way of truth. But this was not to be. … Neither in this world nor in the next can I ever be associated with you. I have cast you out of my life forever.’ ” Then her uncle and her husband pronounced her a heretic, and set about working against her night and day.

One day a mullá was walking through Qazvín, when he saw a gang of ruffians dragging a man along the street; they had tied the man’s turban around his neck for a halter, and were torturing him. The bystanders said that this man had spoken in praise of two beings, heralds of the Báb; and for that, Ṭáhirih’s uncle was banishing him. The mullá was troubled in his mind. He was not a Bábí, but he loved the two heralds of the Báb. He went to the bazar of the swordmakers, and bought a dagger and a spearhead of the finest steel, and bided his time. One dawn in the mosque, an old woman hobbled in and spread down a rug. Then Ṭáhirih’s uncle entered alone, to pray on it. He was prostrating himself when the mullá ran up and plunged the spearhead into his neck; he cried out, the mullá flung him on his back, drove the dagger deep into his mouth and left him bleeding on the mosque floor.

Qazvín went wild over the murder. Although the mullá confessed, and was identified by his dying victim, many innocent people were accused and made prisoner. In Ṭihrán, Bahá’u’lláh suffered His first affliction—some days’ imprisonment—because He sent them food and money and interceded for them. The heirs now put to death an innocent man, Shaykh Ṣáliḥ, an Arab from Karbílá. This admirer of Ṭáhirih was the first to die on Persian soil for the Cause of God; they killed him in Ṭihrán; he greeted his executioner like a well-loved friend, and his last words were, “I discarded . … the hopes and beliefs of men from the moment I recognized Thee, Thou Who art my hope and my belief!”

The remaining prisoners were later massacred, and it is said that no fragments were left of their bodies to bury.

But still the heirs were not content. They accused Ṭáhirih. They had her shut up in her father’s house and made ready to take her life; however, her hour was not yet come. It was then that a beggar-woman stood at the door and whined for bread; but she was no beggar-woman—she brought word that one sent by Bahá’u’lláh, was waiting with three horses near the Qazvín gate. Ṭáhirih went away with the woman, and by daybreak she had ridden to Ṭihrán, to the house of Bahá’u’lláh. All night long, they searched Qazvín for her, but she had vanished.

The scene shifts to the gardens of Badasht. Mud walls enclosing the jade orchards, a stream spread over the desert, and beyond, the sharp mountains cutting into the sky. The Báb was in His prison at Chihríq — “The Grievous Mountain.” He had two short years to live.

And now Bahá’u’lláh came to Badasht, with eighty-one leading Babís as His companions. His destiny was still unguessed. He, the Promised One of the Báb—of Muḥammad, of Christ, of Zoroaster, and beyond Them of prophet after prophet down into the centuries—was still unknown. How could they tell, at Badasht, that His name would soon be loved around the world? How could they hear it called upon, in cities across the earth; strange, unheard of places: San Francisco, Buenos Aires, Adelaide? How could they see the unguessed men and women that would arise to serve that name? But Ṭáhirih saw. “Behold,” she wrote, “the souls of His lovers dancing like motes in the light that has flashed from His face!”

It was in this village of Badasht that the old laws were broken. Up to these days, the Babís had thought that their Master was come to enforce Islám; but here one by one they saw the old laws go. And their confusion mounted, and their trouble, and some held to the old ways and could not go forward into the new.

Then one day, as they sat with Bahá’u’lláh in the garden, an unbearable thing came to pass. Ṭáhirih suddenly appeared before them, and she stood in their presence with her face unveiled. Ṭáhirih so holy; Ṭáhirih, whose very shadow a man would turn his eyes from; Ṭáhirih, the most venerated woman of her time, had stripped the veil from her face, and stood before them like a dancing girl ready for their pleasure. They saw her flashing skin, and the eyebrows joined together, like two swords, over the blazing eyes. And they could not look. Some hid their faces in their hands, some threw their garments over their heads. One cut his throat and fled shrieking and covered with blood.

Then she spoke out in a loud voice to those who were left, and they say her speech came like the words of the Qur’án. “This day,” she said, “this day is the day on which the fetters of the past are burst asunder—I am the Word which the Qá’im is to utter, the Word which shall put to flight the chiefs and nobles of the earth!” And she told them of the old order, yielding to the new, and ended with a prophetic verse from the Holy Book: “Verily, amid gardens and rivers shall the pious dwell in the seat of truth, in the presence of the potent King.”

Ṭáhirih was born in the same year as Bahá’u’lláh, and she was thirty-six when they took her life. European scholars have known her for a long time, under one of her names, Qurratu’l-‘Ayn, which means “Solace of the Eyes.” The Persians sing her poems, which are still waiting for a translator. Women in many countries are hearing of her, getting courage from her. Many have paid tribute to her. Gobineau says, after dwelling on her beauty, “(but) the mind and the character of this young woman were much more remarkable.” And Sir Francis Younghusband: ” … she gave up wealth, child, name and position for her Master’s service. … And her verses were among the most stirring in the Persian language.” And T. K. Cheyne, ” … one is chiefly struck by her fiery enthusiasm and by her absolute unworldliness. This world was, in fact, to her, as it was … to Quddús, a mere handful of dust.”

We see her now at a wedding in the Mayor’s house in Ṭihrán. Her curls are short around her forehead, and she wears a flowered kerchief reaching cape-wise to her shoulders and pinned under her chin. The tight-waisted dress flows to the ground; it is handwoven, trimmed with brocade and figured with the tree-of-life design. Her little slippers curl up at the toes. A soft, perfumed crowd of women pushes and rustles around her. They have left their tables, with the pyramids of sweets in silver dishes. They have forgotten the dancers, hired to stamp and jerk and snap their fingers for the wedding feast. The guests are listening to Ṭáhirih, she who is a prisoner here in the Mayor’s house. She is telling them of the new Faith, of the new way of living it will bring, and they forget the dancers and the sweets.

This Mayor, Maḥmúd Khán, whose house was Ṭáhirih’s prison, came to a strange end. Gobineau tells us that he was kind to Ṭáhirih and tried to give her hope, during those days when she waited in his house for the sentence of death. He adds that she did not need hope. That whenever Maḥmúd Khán would speak of her imprisonment, she would interrupt, and tell him of her Faith; of the true and the false; of what was real, and what was illusion. Then one morning, Maḥmúd Khán brought her good news; a message from the Prime Minister; she had only to deny the Báb, and although they would not believe her, they would let her go.

“Do not hope,” she answered, “that I would deny my Faith … for so feeble a reason as to keep this inconstant, worthless form a few days longer. … You, Maḥmúd Khán, listen now to what I am saying. … The master you serve will not repay your zeal; on the contrary, you shall perish, cruelly, at his command. Try, before your death, to raise your soul up to knowledge of the Truth.”1Gobineau, Comte de, Les Religions et les Philosophies dans l’Asie Centrale, p. 242. He went from the room, not believing. But her words were fulfilled in 1861, during the famine, when the people of Ṭihrán rioted for bread.

Here is an eye-witness’ account of the bread riots of those days; and of death of Maḥmúd Khán: “The distress in Ṭihrán was now culminating, and, the roads being almost impassable, supplies of corn could not reach the city. … As soon as a European showed himself in the streets he was surrounded by famishing women, supplicating assistance … on the 1st of March … the chief Persian secretary came in, pale and trembling, and said there was an émeute, and that the Kalántar, or mayor of the city, had just been put to death, and that they were dragging his body stark naked through the bazars. Presently we heard a great tumult, and on going to the windows saw the streets filled with thousands of people, in a very excited state, surrounding the corpse, which was being dragged to the place of execution, where it was hung up by the heels, naked, for three days.

“On inquiry we learned that on the 28th of February, the Sháh, on coming in from hunting, was surrounded by a mob of several thousand women, yelling for bread, who gutted the bakers’ shops of their contents, under the very eyes of the king. … Next day, the 1st of March … the Shah had ascended the tower, from which Hajji Baba’s Zainab was thrown, and was watching the riots with a telescope. The Kalántar … splendidly dressed, with a long retinue of servants, went up to the tower and stood by the Sháh who reproached him for suffering such a tumult to have arisen. On this the Kalántar declared he would soon put down the riot, and going amongst the women with his servants, he himself struck several of them furiously with a large stick. … On the women vociferously calling for justice, and showing their wounds, the Shah summoned the Kalántar and said, ‘If thou art thus cruel to my subjects before my eyes, what must be thy secret misdeeds!’ Then turning to his attendants, the king said, — ‘Bastinado him, and cut off his beard.’ And again, while this sentence was being executed, the Shah uttered that terrible word, Tanáb! ‘Rope! Strangle him!’”

One night Ṭáhirih called the Kalántar’s wife into her room. She was wearing a dress of shining white silk; her hair gleamed, her cheeks were delicately whitened. She had put on perfume and the room was fragrant with it.

“I am preparing to meet my Beloved,” she said. “… the hour when I shall be arrested and condemned to suffer martyrdom is fast approaching.”

After that, she paced in her locked room, and chanted prayers. The Kalántar’s wife stood at the door, and listened to the voice rising and falling, and wept. “Lord, Lord,” she cried, “turn from her … the cup which her lips desire to drink.” We cannot force the locked door and enter. We can only guess what those last hours were. Not a time of distributing property, of saying good-bye to friends, but rather of communion with the Lord of all peoples, the One alone Beloved of all men. And His chosen ones, His saints and His Messengers, They all were there; They are present at such hours; she was already with Them, beyond the flesh.

She was waiting, veiled and ready, when they came to take her. “Remember me,” she said as she went, “and rejoice in my gladness.” She mounted a horse they had brought and rode away through the Persian night. The starlight was heavy on the trees, and nightingales rustled. Camel-bells tinkled from somewhere. The horses’ hooves thudded in the dust of the road.

And then bursts of laughter from the drunken officers in the garden. Candles shone on their heavy faces, on the disordered banquet-cloth, the wine spilling over. When Ṭáhirih stood near them, their chief hardly raised his head. “Leave us!” he shouted. “Strangle her!” And he went back to his wine.

She had brought a silk handkerchief with her; she had saved it for this from long ago. Now she gave it to them. They twisted it round her throat, and wrenched it till the blood spurted. They waited till her body was quiet, then they took it up and laid it in an unfinished well in the garden. They covered it over and went away, their eyes on the earth, afraid to look at each other.

Many seasons have passed over Ṭihrán since that hour. In winter the mountains to the north have blazed with their snows, shaken like a million mirrors in the sun. And springs came on, with pear blossoms crowding the gardens, and blue swallows flashing. Summertimes, the city lay under a dust-cloud, and people went up to the moist rocks, the green clefts in the hills. And autumns, when the boughs were stripped, the dizzy space of plains and sky circled the town again. Much time has passed, almost a hundred years since that night.

But today there are a thousand voices where there was one voice then. Words in many tongues, books in many scripts, and temples rising. The love she died for caught and spread, till there are a thousand hearts offered now, for one heart then. She is not silent, there in the earth. Her lips are dust, but they speak.