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?
To live today in deed and truth the kind of life that Jesus of Nazareth lived and bade his followers lead; to love God wholeheartedly and for God’s sake to love all mankind even one’s slanderers and enemies; to give consistently good for evil, blessings for curses, kindness for cruelty and through a career darkened along its entire length by tragic misrepresentation and persecution to preserve one’s courage, one’s sweetness and calm faith in God – to do all this and yet to play the man in the world of men, sharing at home and in business the common life of humanity, administering when occasion arose affairs large and small and handling complex situations with foresight and firmness – to live in such a manner throughout a long and arduous life, and, when in the fullness of time death came, to leave to multitudes of mourners a sense of desolation and to be remembered and loved by them all as the Servant of God – to how many men is such an achievement given as it has been given in this age of ours to ‘Abbás Effendi.
The story would be too sad to recount or to recall were it not that the impression which it fixes on the mind is less that of human perverseness and depravity than that of the power of the soul of man, aided by God, to face, endure and transcend the utmost power of earthly evil – evil in its most mean and most malevolent form: hypocrisy, jealousy, guile, implacable hate and frigid cruelty. Enveloped by it stand the figures of a few unarmed and unresisting victims whose resolution is not weakened, whose enthusiasm is not lowered, whose calmness is not shaken by the fury or the length of the persecution, but who after an ordeal lasting an old man’s lifetime emerge with their great purpose achieved and their foes beaten from the field. Here is everything of high colour and of strong contrast to give to the narrative force and sharpness of impression. Here is the luxury of the Orient and here its sloth, its squalor and its baseness. Here is the saint, the philosopher, the reformer, the crusader; and here the outraged despot, the subtle vazír, the fanatical priest, the jailer, the torturer, the headsman and the howling mob. Reversal follows upon reversal, and the inevitable yields place to the impossible. Power and wealth dissolve; force is vanquished by weakness; the defeated win the spoils, and they who inherit all are the meek and the poor in spirit. The story seizes and holds fast the attention of the reader. Now it attracts and now repels; now horrifies, now softens; now uplifts the heart and now makes the blood run cold. But its final and lasting effect is to sweeten, to exhilarate, to strengthen, and to infuse into the soul a yet profounder faith in the overruling might of God.
To the historian, the psychologist, the student of comparative religion, the narrative in all its aspects has much to offer of interest and value. But to the practising Christian of the twentieth century the personal life and character of ‘Abbás Effendi make a direct and peculiar appeal. The Christian who has set himself really to follow the precepts of Christ finds himself in special difficulties today. The very understanding and knowledge of the will of Christ, as well as the performance of it, seem now less easy to attain than they were for our forefathers. The accuracy of the Gospel record not only in phrase and detail but in larger matters likewise is questioned by an increasing number of scholars. The record in any case is brief and fragmentary; and the utterances attributed to the Christ are not only very few but so terse and epigrammatic that their bearing is often uncertain and they admit of diverse interpretations. The problems of the contemporary world too are so much more complex than those of the period in which Christ lived that his words which suited so well the conditions of the past are difficult to apply to the present. Those who profess themselves the teachers of Christendom speak with such different voices and offer much contradictory advice that the public mind is bewildered. And since many of these self-appointed guides fail to be true in their lives to those injunctions of Jesus which all admit to be authentic, the bewilderment becomes mixed with impatience and disrespect. Guidance from both the ancient Book and from living example, is therefore less easy to gain than it was once. And the natural weakness of our nature which finds so arduous the moral life demanded by Christ is no longer supported by custom and general opinion but is on the contrary further enervated by the influence of a self-willed and flippant age.
In the story of ‘Abbás Effendi the Christian comes upon something which he ardently desires and which he finds it difficult to obtain elsewhere. There awaits him here reassurance that the moral precepts of Christ are to be accepted exactly and in their entirety, that they can be lived out as fully under modern conditions as under any other, and that the highest spirituality is quite compatible with sound common sense and practical wisdom. Many of the incidents in ‘Abbás Effendi ’s life form a commentary on the teachings of Christ and illuminate the meaning of the ancient words. Being a philosopher as well as a saint he was able to give to many a Christian enquirer explanations of the Gospel which had the authority not only of their own reasonableness and beauty but also the authority of his own true love for Christ and his life of Christlike righteousness.
Thus the beauty of Christ and of his words, obscured by so much in modern life, is through ‘Abbás Effendi brought nearer to us and made real again, and a perusal of the story imparts to the Christian encouragement and light.
Christ taught that the supreme human achievement is not any particular deed nor even any particular condition of mind: but a relation to God. To be completely filled -heart-mind-soul- with love for God, such is the great ideal, the Great Commandment. In ‘Abbás Effendi ’s character the dominant element was spirituality. Whatever was good in his life he attributed not to any separate source of virtue in himself but to the power and beneficence of God. His single aim was servitude to God. He rejoiced in being denuded of all earthly possessions and in being rich only in his love for God. He surrendered his freedom that he might become the bondservant of God; and was able at the close of his days to declare that he had spent all his strength upon the Cause of God. To him God was the centre of all existence here on earth as heretofore and hereafter. All things were in their degree mirrors of the bounty of God and outpourings of his power. Truth was the word of God. Art was the worship of God. Life was nearness to God; Death remoteness from him. The knowledge of God was the purpose of human existence and the summit of human attainment. No learning nor education that did not lead towards this knowledge was worth pursuit. Beyond it there was no further glory, and short of it there was nothing that could be called success.
In ‘Abbás Effendi this love for God was the ground and cause of an equanimity which no circumstances could shake, and of an inner happiness which no adversity affected and which in his presence brought to the sad, the lonely, or the doubting the most precious companionship and healing. He had many griefs but they were born of his sympathy and his devotion. He knew many sorrows but they were all those of a lover. Warmly emotional as he was he felt keenly the troubles of others, even of persons whom he had not actually met nor seen, and to his tender and responsive nature the loss of friends and the bereavements of which he had to face more than a few brought acute anguish. His heart was burdened always with the sense of humanity’s orphanhood, and he would be so much distressed by any unkindness or discord among believers that his physical health would be affected. Yet he bore his own sufferings however numerous and great with unbroken strength. For forty years he endured in a Turkish prison rigours which would have killed most men in a twelvemonth. Through all this time he was, he said, supremely happy being close to God and in constant communion with Him. He made light of all his afflictions. Once when he was paraded through the streets in chains the soldiers who had become his friends, wished to cover up his fetters with the folds of his garment that the populace might not see and deride; but the prisoner shook off the covering and jangled aloud the bonds which he bore in the service of his Lord. When friends from foreign lands visited him in prison and seeing the cruelties to which he was subjected commiserated with him he disclaimed their sympathy, demanded their felicitations and bade them become so firm in their love for God that they too could endure calamity with a radiant acquiescence. He was not really, he said, in prison; for “there is no prison but the prison of self” and since God’s love filled his heart he was all the time in heaven.
From this engrossing love for God came the austere simplicity which marked ‘Abbás Effendi’s character. Christ’s manner of life had been simple in the extreme. A poor man poorly clad, often in his wanderings he had no drink but the running stream, no bed but the earth, no lamp but the stars. His teaching was given in homely phrases and familiar images and the religion he revealed however difficult to follow was as plain and open as his life. His very simplicity helped to mislead his contemporaries. They could recognise the badges of greatness but not greatness itself, and they could not see the light though they knew its name. He was neither Rabbi nor Shaykh though he was the Messiah. He had neither throne nor sword though all things in heaven and in earth were committed into his charge.
The life of ‘Abbás Effendi too was simple and severe. Familiar during much of his life with cold, hunger and all privation, he chose for himself in his own home the most frugal fare. The room in which he slept and in which he would sometimes deny himself even the comfort of a bed served him as a work-room too. His clothing was often of the cheapest kind; and he taught his family so to dress that their apparel might be “an example to the rich and an encouragement to the poor.” The household prayers which he held morning and evening were quite informal.
Partly from a natural modesty but also from a resolve to do nothing that might encourage in others a tendency to formalism, he objected to any parade or unnecessary ceremonial, particularly if he were to be concerned in it. When, as he was about to leave the ship on his first visit to New York, he saw that his reception was to be made a public spectacle he peremptorily declined to have anything to do with the arrangement, dismissed the company, and at a later hour went ashore as unostentatiously as possible. In Haifa on another occasion, he managed to turn the tables on those who sought to do him an unacceptable honour and created a diversion which had not the less its serious meaning because he invested it with the spirit of high comedy. Some wealthy visitors from the Occident planned to involve him in a picturesque scene in which a page boy, a chased bowl flowing with crystal water, and a scented towel had their part. Just before the meal hour ‘Abbás Effendi saw the designful group approaching across the lawn. He divined their intention at once; and running over to a little water-trough performed quickly in it the customary ablution, wiped his fingers on the gardener’s cloth that hung close by and then turned to greet with his radiant smile his guests, who a moment later were receiving at his hands the elaborate attention they had designed for him.
Even if some degree of circumstance and formality were called for, ‘Abbás Effendi would reduce them to the smallest possible proportions. When on April 27th 1920 he was to receive in the grounds of the Governor’s Residence at Haifa the honour of knighthood he evaded the equestrian procession and the military reception prepared for him by slipping unobserved from his house and making his way to the rendezvous by some unaccustomed route. When all were in perplexity and many thought that he was lost, he appeared quietly at the right place and the right time and proceeded in the prescribed manner with the essential part of the ceremony.
Of all material things, as of food, clothing, shelter he sought and desired for himself the barest sufficiency. But asceticism was not part of his creed nor of his teaching. “Others may sleep on soft pillows; mine must be a hard one,” he said once in declining a kind friend’s offer of some little comfort for his room. Men were to take what God had given them, and to enjoy the good things of nature: but with renunciation. Fasting was a symbol, and as such had high value, but in itself was no virtue: “God has given you an appetite,” he said; “eat.” Riches he thought no blessing: if they had been, Christ would have been rich. The poverty however which he inculcated was not impecuniousness but the heart’s poverty of him who is so rich in love for God that he is destitute of all desire for aught else.
He was the most unassuming of men. He counted himself personally as less than others, put himself below them and served them in every way he could find with unaffected humility. He used to entertain at his table visitors from far and near; but if the occasion were one of special importance he would rise and wait on his guests with his own hands – a practice he recommended to other hosts. When his father was alive and dwelt outside ‘Akká among the mountains, ‘Abbás Effendi used frequently to visit Him, and though the way was long he habitually went on foot. His friends asked him why he did not spare himself so much time and effort and go on horseback. “Over these mountains Jesus walked on foot,” he said. “And who am I that I should ride where the Lord Christ walked?” Once when in his latter days he had to return from a distance to his home, he took a seat in the common stage. The driver thought this unseemly in a man of his standing and remonstrated with him for not hiring a private carriage; but ‘Abbás Effendi insisted on using the stage. At the end of his journey as he alighted, he was accosted by a beggar to whose pleading he listened and to whom he gave a gold coin. Then turning to the driver, he said – “Why should I travel in a carriage when such as he need money?”
But this humility did not come from any weakness. It was a proof of his strength and a cause of his spiritual power. Once when a child asked him why all the rivers of the earth flowed into the ocean, he said, “because it sets itself lower than them all and so draws them to itself.” Pride repels; humility attracts. When commenting on Christ’s direction to be as little children, he emphasised the fact that the virtues of children are due to weakness, and adults must learn to have these virtues through strength. A palsied arm cannot strike an angry blow; but the virtue of forbearance belongs to one who can but will not. His humility was not due to any diffidence or other failing. Nor did it imply any self-abasement or self-deprecation. What it meant was the obliteration of the personal self. His separate ego had no existence at all save only as an instrument of expression for the higher self that was one with God. He did not minimise his spiritual station, nor did any circumstance large or small separate him from it. He upheld under all conditions the cause to which his heart was given. Somebody who knew him in the West remarked that he was always master of the situation, and amid the novel and alien surroundings of such cities as London, Chicago, and New York he preserved his self-possession and his power. On one occasion in America when he had arrived at a house where he was to be a guest at luncheon, a coloured man called on him just before the meal hour. Being known to the hostess the caller was admitted but ‘Abbás Effendi observed that according to the prevailing social custom there was no intention of admitting him to sit at the table with the regular guests. Now race prejudice is what ‘Abbás Effendi could not tolerate. At his own table members of all races and religions met on an equality as brothers. He was not going to countenance it among his friends in America if he could help it. What was the surprise of the hostess and of everyone else present when he was observed clearing a place beside him and calling for knives and forks for the new arrival. Before any seemly way of countering ‘Abbás Effendi’s initiative was found, before anyone had quite realized how it had happed, the lady found herself doing what neither she nor any other hostess in her position would have dreamed of doing and entertaining at her table with her white friends a negro. ‘Abbás Effendi had become the spiritual host. He spread before those who sat with him the reality of the Fatherhood of God. Such was his radiant power that the unconventional challenging meal passed off without unpleasantness or embarrassment to any who partook of it.
Pouring forth unceasingly kindness and compassion he forgot himself, and thought only of others: not of some others only, but of all. His love seemed to know no bounds and showed itself throughout his whole life in every variety of shape.
It was told of him as a little boy that he once was sent out to inspect the shepherds who had charge of his father’s flocks among the Persian hills. When the review was completed he was told by his attendant it was customary to give each of the shepherds a present. He said he had nothing to give; but was told the men would expect something and something should be given them. The boy thereupon presented the shepherds with the flocks. His father hearing of this munificent gift was pleased at his son’s generosity but said “We shall have to watch ‘Abbás; for next he will give away himself.”
Even when some years later, ‘Abbás Effendi and his father, as exiles and prisoners, were reduced to destitution, he still managed to help others and contrived (so his companions said) somehow to find something to give away.
In his old age when he was living in Haifa he used to set aside a special hour each Friday for dispensing charity to the poor who came to ask for it; and many visitors have left pictures of the strange wild scene as the crowd of alms-seekers, many of them guileful-menacing-violent, many of them dreadful to look on, but all of them pitiable, jostled around the venerable figure of their host who walked among them distributing smiles and good cheer and warm encouragement along with the material gift that seemed to fit each case of need. It was his practice too to seek out the poor and needy in their homes, and the sight of their deprivations brought him great sadness. Returning from such a visit of charity he could hardly bring himself to partake of his own frugal supper, for thinking of their greater poverty.
When he traveled in the West it was his custom to take out with him a bag of silver pieces to give to the poor whom he met; and being brought down one evening to the Bowery Mission in New York he delivered there one of the most compassionate and moving of his addresses. It is recorded in the third volume of the Star of the West, and reads in part as follows:
“Tonight I am very happy for I have come here to meet my friends. I consider you my relatives, my companions, and I am your comrade. You must be thankful to God that you are poor, for his Holiness Jesus Christ has said, ‘Blessed are the poor’; he never said, ‘Blessed are the rich.’ He said too that the Kingdom is for the poor. Therefore you must be thankful to God that though in this world you are indigent yet the treasures of God are within your reach; and although in the material realm you are poor, yet in the Kingdom of God you are precious. His Holiness Jesus himself was poor. He did not belong to the rich. He passed his time in the desert travelling among the poor, and lived upon the herbs of the field. He had no place to lay his head, no home; yet he chose this rather than riches. It was the poor who accepted him first, not the rich. Therefore you are the disciples of Jesus; you are his comrades; your lives are similar to his life, your attitude is like unto his, you resemble him more than the rich. Therefore we will thank God that we have been so blest with real riches and in conclusion I ask you to accept me as your servant.”
At the end of the meeting ‘Abbás Effendi stood at the Bowery entrance to the Mission Hall, shaking hands with from four to five hundred men and placing within each palm a piece of silver.
With not less tenderness he answered the need of those whose poverty was spiritual. His guards and jailers, servants of a cruel and despotic master, were won by his kindness and became his friends. “What is there about him,” people would say, “that he makes his enemies his friends?” Towards those who displayed to him personal ill-will and malice he showed forbearance and generosity. Missionary work, he said, is not promoted by being overbearing and harsh; bad people are not to be won to God by criticisms and rebukes, nor by returning to them evil for evil. On the contrary the cause of God advances through courtesy and kindness and the bad are conquered by intercession on their behalf and by sincere unflagging love. “When you meet a thought of hate, overcome it with a stronger thought of love.” Christ’s command to love one’s enemies was not obeyed by assuming love nor by acting as though one loved them: for this would be hypocrisy. It was only obeyed when genuine love was felt. When asked how it was possible to love those who were hostile or personally repugnant, he said that love could be true yet indirect. One may love a flower not only for itself but for the sake of someone who sent it. One may love a house because of one who dwells in it. A letter coming from a friend may be precious though the envelope which held it was torn and soiled. So one may love sinners for the sake of the universal Father and may show kindness to them as to children who need training, to sick persons who need medicine, to wanderers who need guidance. “Treat the sinners, the tyrants, the bloodthirsty enemies as faithful friends and confidants,” he would say. “Consider not their deeds; consider only God.” His kindness was persistent and unflagging: he forgave until seventy times seven. A neighbour of his in Haifa (a self-righteous Muslim from Afghánistán, who regarded ‘Abbás Effendi as a renegade and an outcast) pursued him for years with hate and scorn. When he met ‘Abbás Effendi on the street he would draw aside his robes that he might not be contaminated by touching a heretic. He received kindnesses with obdurate ill will. Help in misfortune, food when he was hungry, medicine in sickness, the services of a physician, personal visits, all made no impression on his hardened heart. But ‘Abbás Effendi did not relax nor despair. For five and twenty years he returned continuously good for evil; and then suddenly the man’s long hate broke down, his heart warmed, his spirit awoke and with tears of disillusion and remorse he bowed in homage before the goodness that had mastered him.
Even with enemies much more dangerous and cruel than this poor Afghán, ‘Abbás Effendi showed the same forbearance and good will. He would suffer or invite any personal loss or humiliation rather than miss an opportunity of doing a kindness to an enemy; he would suffer calamity in order to avoid doing something which might be to the spiritual detriment of an ill-wisher. When he had been liberated, a secret enemy procured his re-imprisonment by misrepresentations to the authorities. ‘Abbás Effendi might probably have secured his release by a special appeal; but he declined to take this action. He went back to the prison and was held there for years, one reason for this non-resistance to evil being that the success of his appeal would but deepen the envy and degradation of his enemy: “he must know that I will be the first to forgive him.” In this submissiveness he acted in the same spirit as his father in parallel circumstances. For during that period when a certain jealous member of their entourage was by various means covertly seeking His life, Bahá’u’lláh and all the members of His family, including His eldest son, remained (so Professor Cheyne records) on cordial relations with him, admitting him as before to their company, even though they thus afforded him further opportunities of pursuing his deadly designs.
So confident were all who knew ‘Abbás Effendi that they could count on his largeness of mind that even the Sháh of Persia, when in extremity and threatened with revolution, stooped to send a letter to him asking for his opinion and advice, and received an assurance that if he would end despotism and establish a constitution he might count on a happy reign but that if he persisted in his present path he would be dethroned. The Sháh neglected the counsel and brought down upon himself the fate from which his generous prisoner would have shielded him.
He that is faithful in a very little will be faithful also in much. The foot of a Hercules will be enough to reveal the giant dimensions of his strength. And from the few phrases and incidents quoted in this brief sketch one may recognise the keenness of ‘Abbás Effendi’s insight into the spiritual meaning of the Gospel, and the Christlikeness of his character and his life.
Who can even casually regard this story without being touched to the quick by this spectacle of wisdom held in chains and tender love scourged by bloodthirsty hate, and without being moved to long wonder at the obliquity of our human nature which metes out to a heaven-born goodness either icy neglect or ferocious persecution? It is strange that ‘Abbás Effendi should have walked the streets of Christendom and spoken in its halls, little honoured and little heeded, and that when he had gone, the sluggish tides of materialism should have closed over his tracks and rolled on their accustomed course. Yet it is still more strange that in Islám every virtue in his breast should have called forth in the breast of priest and politician its opposite, and that he should have been a target for the last extremes of all injustice. But even in these unparalleled tribulations appears the unveiling hand of Almighty God. The spiritual eminence of the central figure stands out with a loftier majesty because it rises from an uttermost abyss, and the world could never have realised the tremendous power of that character had it not been put to the proof by trials proportioned to its strength.