Over the past 100 years, the world has witnessed the gradual emergence of a new entity: a
collective centre for men’s souls called the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár.1‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, no. 60.1, in The Institution of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár: A Compilation of Extracts from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the Writings of Shoghi Effendi, and the Letters of the Universal House of Justice, prepared by the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice (September 2017) #16. Available at https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/compilations/institution-mashriqul-adhkar/. This
dawning place of the mention of God was created by Bahá’u’lláh,2 In the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, His book of laws, Bahá’u’lláh describes the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár as each and every building which hath been erected in cities and villages for the celebration of My praise, par. 115. In The Institution of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár #2. and in the Bahá’í writings, the term refers, in different contexts, to gatherings, to structures, and to the institution of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár3In a letter to an individual believer dated 20 April 1997, the Universal House of Justice wrote, The term ‘Mashriqu’l-Adhkár’has been used in the Writings to describe various things: the gathering of the friends for prayers at dawn; a building where this activity takes place; the complete institution of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár, with its dependencies; the central edifice of that institution, often described as a House of Worship or Temple. These variants can all be seen as denoting stages or aspects of the gradual introduction of Bahá’u’lláh’s concept as promulgated in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas. In The Institution of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár #73. See also the letter of the Universal House of Justice to the Bahá’ís of Iran (18 December 2014). —variations that correspond to an evolving understanding and practice of
worship in relation to community development.
The first use of the term, with reference to gatherings, reflects the truth that any group of people in any locality in the world can create the spiritual environment of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár when they gather together to pray; the second, in conjunction with structures, indicates a dedicated space, an
outward frame that reveals
the inward reality;4‘Abdu’l-Bahá, from a Tablet translated from the Persian, in The Institution of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár #21. and the third signals the emergence of a formal institution as the
inward reality strengthens and is expressed through action. In fact, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá described the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár as
one of the most vital institutions in the world.5‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, no. 64.1. In The Institution of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár #18. Elaborating on this, the Universal House of Justice refers to it as
the focal point of the community from which it emerges because it not only provides a space for worship but also encompasses dependencies; together, these embody
two essential and inseparable aspects of Bahá’í life: worship and service.6Universal House of Justice, from a letter to the Friends Gathered in Santiago, Chile, for the Dedication of the Mother Temple of South America (14 October 2016). In The Institution of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár #69.
Worship, in Bahá’í practice, is simple in form and open to all. In devotional gatherings, which the Universal House of Justice has called “seeds of future Mashriqu’l-Adhkárs,”7 In a letter to the Bahá’ís of Iran (18 December 2014), the Universal House of Justice wrote: Beloved friends: Gatherings dedicated to prayer throughout your blessed land, in every neighbourhood, town, village, and hamlet, and the increasing access that your compatriots are gaining to Bahá’í prayers are enabling your community to shine the light of unity in the assemblage of humanity, lending a share to the endeavours of your fellow believers throughout the world. Plant, then, the seeds of future Mashriqu’l-Adhkárs for the benefit of all, and ignite countless beacons of light against the gloom of hatred and inequity. In The Institution of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár #67.any soul may enter, inhale the heavenly fragrances, experience the sweetness of prayer, meditate upon the Creative Word, be transported on the wings of the spirit, and commune with the one Beloved.8Universal House of Justice, from a letter to the Conference of the Continental Boards of Counsellors (29 December 2015). In The Institution of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár #68. In a Mashriqu’l-Adhkár, worship is likewise without ritual or set patterns, and the object is the same. As Shoghi Effendi wrote, “the more universal and informal the character of Bahá’í worship in the Temple the better.”9From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States and Canada (11 April 1931). In The Institution of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár #45. Sacred scriptures from the Bahá’í Faith and other religions are read or chanted; there is no sermon or lecture, no collection of funds, no instrumental music, and no segregation for any reason such as sex, religion, or caste. Likewise, as service to humanity is an element of Bahá’í life in communities everywhere, no matter what their size or means, in communities where a Mashriqu’l-Adhkár emerges, the purpose of its dependencies is to systematize the facilitation of service to the common good by providing “centres of education and scientific learning as well as cultural and humanitarian endeavour” and by promoting the application of knowledge “to serve social and spiritual progress.”10Universal House of Justice, from a letter to the Bahá’ís of Iran (18 December 2014). In The Institution of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár #67. Crucially, these two aspects of worship and service cannot be isolated from each other. Until “translated and transfused”into “dynamic and disinterested service to the cause of humanity,” the results of worship are limited;11Shoghi Effendi, from a letter to the beloved of the Lord and the handmaids of the Merciful throughout the United States and Canada (25 October 1929), in Bahá’í Administration: Selected Messages 1922–1932 (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1974, 1998 printing), 184–86; in The Institution of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár #38. the dependencies of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár both promote this change and provide channels for it.
The physical and organizational structures associated with the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár emerge organically as understanding matures and a community develops the capacity for effective action. Because the physical structure provides a space for a growing number of people to gather to worship and to serve the broader community, it is important that the space created be welcoming to all. Therefore, the physical requirements, like the practice of worship inside the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár, are simple: It must have nine sides with nine entrances, signaling its openness to all. Inside, there are no pulpits or altars, and no pictures, icons, or statues. Most importantly, it should be beautiful and “as perfect as is possible in the world of being,”12Bahá’u’lláh, The Kitáb-i-Aqdas: The Most Holy Book, par. 31. In The Institution of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár #1. so as to act as a means of “nurturing an attraction to the sacred.”13Universal House of Justice, on the occasion of the dedication of the House of Worship in Santiago, Chile (14 October 2016). Furthermore, the design should be integrated with the culture of its location—a feature amply demonstrated in the diversity of the Houses of Worship that have been constructed to date.14Designs have been diverse and innovative. In some cases, the architects have been told that what they have been envisioned is impossible—and yet they have achieved it. For example, in Chicago, the architect’s design resulted in engineering innovations in the use of concrete; in Germany, the modern design immediately distinguished this place of worship from traditional structures associated with other faiths. In India, the architect chose the motif of the lotus flower, a sacred symbol that resonates with the population irrespective of religious affiliation; Apia’s Temple is based on the open design of a traditional Samoan meeting house, and Panama’s open design incorporates indigenous motifs in the supporting brickwork. Many of the designs have won awards for their engineering and design innovations. In locations where local Houses of Worship are planned or have been recently constructed, the Bahá’í community has entered into a consultative process with the local population to generate a sense of ownership by all.15These consultative meetings have addressed topics such as the building design and the surrounding gardens. In Norte del Cauca, this brought about a plan to restore native species of plants and trees that had largely disappeared from the region.
Beginnings: ‘Ishqábád and Chicago
Ten Mashriqu’l-Adhkárs currently exist throughout the world. The first eight were built to serve as continental-level Temples in Chicago, the United States of America, for North America; Kampala, Uganda, for Africa; Sydney, Australia; Frankfurt, Germany, for Europe; Panama City, Panama, for Central America; Apia, Samoa, for Australasia; New Delhi, India; and Santiago, Chile, for South America. Local Houses of Worship have been completed in Battambang, Cambodia, and in Agua Azul, in the Norte del Cauca region of Colombia. Five more are in some stage of development: two national-level Temples in Papua New Guinea and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and three more local Houses of Worship in Tanna, Vanuatu; Bihar Sharif, India; and Matunda Soy, Kenya. The determination as to where and when one will take physical shape in a community is made by the Head of the Faith and corresponds to that Bahá’í community’s capacity to embrace both the spiritual and practical aspects associated with it—to engage in sustained, long-term action to assist large numbers of people in a process of transformation that is both individual and collective, spiritual and material. The Bahá’í world community is still at the beginning of this temple-building process, but a look at how the world’s first two Bahá’í Houses of Worship took shape over a century ago offers some insights as to how this unique institution can develop in widely differing matrices and provides some historical context for the current efforts to construct national and local Mashriqu’l-Adhkárs.
The world’s first Bahá’í House of Worship was built in ‘Ishqábád16Alternate transliterations are Ashgabat or Ashkhabad.in the Russian Transcaspian province close to the border of what is present-day Iran, where a small group of Persian Bahá’ís had settled to escape persecution in their home country. The first few adherents arrived around 1884; by 1890, there were some 400 and by 1902, approximately 1,000. As early as 1887 they acquired land and began to develop facilities
for communal well-being, including a meeting hall, schools for both boys and girls, a travelers’ hospice, and a clinic—all of which were established in an
environment of unified endeavour and progress.17Universal House of Justice, from a letter to the Bahá’ís of the World (1 August 2014). In The Institution of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár #66. Significantly, Bahá’u’lláh Himself approved the land for the project. Later, acting on directions from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the community commenced construction on the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár in 1902.
One writer’s description conveys the organic nature of the process through which the House of Worship emerged:
…they purchased a piece of ground, made it a beautiful garden, held open air meetings in the summer time; and when they could, erected a frame structure, which was used as a school for the Bahai children during week days; until finally—nine years after the ground was purchased, … they commenced the edifice ….18Cited in R. Jackson Armstrong Ingram, Music, Devotions, and Mashriqu’l-Adhkár, Studies in Bábí and Bahá’í History (LA: Kalimat Press, 1987), 127. It is significant that the starting point of the community’s effort to develop its Mashriqu’l-Adhkár was by raising the level of the community’s social and economic development—notably, eliminating illiteracy by establishing educational facilities for all the children.
While the Bahá’í community of ‘Ishqábád achieved a high degree of internal unity, the wider social environment was not widely accepting of—and was, in some cases, openly hostile to—the teachings of the new faith. Thus, the spiritual encouragement and material support that the community received from elsewhere were doubly important. The Bahá’ís there must have been heartened by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s promise that such a
material structure would have
a spiritual effect and
a powerful influence on every phase of life 19‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá 60.1. In The Institution of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár #16. and by His assertion that He longed to participate in the construction Himself.20In one letter, He wrote: Were ‘Abdu’l-Bahá not imprisoned and were there not obstacles in his path, he himself would assuredly hasten to ‘‘Ishqábád and carry the earth for the building of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár with the utmost joy and gladness. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, cited in a letter from the Universal House of Justice to the Bahá’ís of the World (1 August 2014). As the work neared completion, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote that the news had brought him
infinite joy and declared that it would become
a place of great happiness,
without peer or likeness.21‘Abdu’l-Bahá, from a Tablet translated from the Persian. In The Institution of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár #24.
In this great building project, the Bahá’í community of ‘Ishqábád was fortunate to have the support of an individual who sacrificially contributed a significant portion of the funds,22His name was Hájí Mírzá Muhammad-Taqí Afnán. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s tribute to him can be found in Memorials of the Faithful (Wilmette: US Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1971), 126–29. In it, He extolls him as the first builder of a House to unify man, 128. ut while his generosity was instrumental, the Bahá’í community as a whole was also directly involved, which allowed it to develop capacity to administer the affairs of the local Bahá’í community in an atmosphere of unified purpose. 23It is important to note that only members of the Bahá’í community have the privilege to contribute to the Bahá’í funds and thus support the construction of a House of Worship. As ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote:
The friends in ‘Ishqábád made the raising up of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár the means of creating perfect fellowship. With the utmost love and sincerity, they elected a committee, and that committee attended to establishing, organizing, arranging, and designing the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár, which
was constructed in great soundness and majesty.24‘Abdu’l-Bahá, from a Tablet translated from the Persian. In The Institution of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár #20.
Through this focus,
fortified by ties of camaraderie and animated by unity of purpose and a spirit of faithfulness, the community reached
a high degree of cohesiveness and development,and its members became
distinguished for their prosperity, magnanimity, and intellectual and cultural attainments.25The Universal House of Justice, letter to the Bahá’ís of the world, 1 August 2014. Available at https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/the-universal-house-of-justice/messages/20140801_001/1#980781985. In The Institution of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár #66. One writer estimates that ‘Ishqábád
was the first place where there was a conscious attempt to build up a Bahá’í community along the pattern laid down in the Bahá’í writings, noting,
Nowhere else was there both the numbers of Bahá’ís and the freedom sufficient to do this. In Iran, the numbers existed but not the freedom. Elsewhere in the Middle East, the numbers were not sufficient.26Moojan Momen, The Bahá’í Community of Ashkhabad: Its Social Basis and Importance in Bahá’í History, in Cultural Change and Continuity in Central Asia. Ed. Shirin Akiner. (London: Kegan Paul, 1991), 300. http://www.momen.org/relstud/’Ishqábád.htm. Central to this development was the community’s
rich pattern of life deriving its impetus from the power of the Creative Word27The Universal House of Justice, letter to the Bahá’ís of the world, 1 August 2014.—a pattern that was ultimately given communal space in the House of Worship.
The initial challenge that the Bahá’í community of ‘Ishqábád faced was external opposition from Shi’ih Muslims. In 1890, for example, a prominent member of the Bahá’í community was murdered in the marketplace in full view of some 500 spectators who cheered the murderers on.28For accounts of this episode and its consequences, see Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By. First edition published 1944. Revised edition 1974 (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1974), 202–03; Nancy Ackerman and Graham Hassall, Russia and the Bahá’í Faith: A Historic Connection, The Bahá’í World 1998–99 (Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 2000), 162; Momen, 282–83. Fortifying itself to withstand such opposition and flourishing under the guidance of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the community became very unified, but its growth was limited—generated largely by the arrival of additional members from Iran. Following the Russian Revolution, the community faced further difficulties owing to the government’s anti-religious policies, and ultimately its life span was cut short. By 1938 the authorities had prohibited its activities, seized its properties, converted them to other uses, and exiled many of the members. The House of Worship itself was expropriated, used as a museum until it was damaged in an earthquake, and eventually demolished.29For more details, see Houses of Worship around the World: Ashgabat (Ashkhabad, ‘‘Ishqábád) in The Bahá’í Encyclopedia Project, www.bahai-encyclopedia-project.org. Nevertheless, its brief existence and the Bahá’í community’s efforts to construct a pattern of life that translated worship into active service to humanity stand as a powerful example to later generations.
The process through which the construction of the world’s second Bahá’í House of Worship was undertaken was quite different. In 1903, learning about the initiative in ‘Ishqábád, a group of Bahá’ís in the Chicago area petitioned ‘Abdu’l-Bahá for permission to build a Mashriqu’l-Adhkár and received warm encouragement to undertake the project. However, the American matrix generated very different dynamics. As one author puts it,
Although there had grown a substantial Bahá’í community in Chicago and although these Bahá’ís did in 1903 decide to build a House of Worship in emulation of the Ashkhabad House of Worship, there was not the same unity and community spirit nor the resources to equal the Ashkhabad achievements.30Momen, 300.
While there was no external opposition to contend with, a number of geographic and cultural factors served as impediments. First, in contrast to the community in ‘Ishqábád, the North American Bahá’í community was composed of recent converts whose access to Bahá’í scripture was limited and whose new faith was tested by the falling away of the first teacher in North America. Second, the Bahá’ís lived in comparatively small and widely scattered centers throughout the continent—some 150 cities by 1906, but the communities were mostly modest in size and were spread throughout eleven states as well as the city of Montreal, in Canada.31Bruce Whitmore, The Dawning Place: The Building of a Temple, the Forging of a Global Religious Community, 2nd ed, revised and expanded (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing, 2015), 25. A third challenge to their unity arose from their culture’s prizing of individualism above collective endeavor, and a fourth came from gender inequality.
While the idea of building a Temple generated enthusiasm among many when it was first raised by the Bahá’í community in Chicago, there was also some confusion. What would be its scope? Some saw it as a local Mashriqu’l-Adhkár similar to the one they had read about in ‘Ishqábád, and a number of other communities immediately proposed building one of their own. However, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá swiftly guided them to think of the Chicago House of Worship not only as a national but as a continental effort that should be supported by Bahá’í communities throughout North America and around the world, especially those in Iran.
Establishing a climate of unity was hard work. Some objected to providing funds for a House of Worship in a distant location. Others resisted the call to support the Temple project because a woman, Corinne True, was initially one of the strongest forces behind it after being assigned the task by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Difficulties arose in reaching agreement about the site and the Temple design. Eventually, however, a parcel of land in Wilmette, north of Chicago, was agreed upon, and the cornerstone was laid by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in 1912 during His visit to North America—a moment of great joy and triumph for the community. Nevertheless, decades of fundraising followed, and other challenges had to be surmounted before the project’s completion.
Its efforts to overcome these difficulties shaped the North American Bahá’í community. The construction of the Temple was, in the words of the Universal House of Justice, a
complex project that took decades to complete, through
two world wars and a widespread economic depression with
each stage in its development … intimately tied to the expansion of the community and the unfoldment of its administration.32The Universal House of Justice, letter to the Bahá’ís of the world, 1 August 2014. Throughout this process, the loving and infallible guidance of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi served as a catalyst for the community’s development by repeatedly raising its vision above the merely material. Shoghi Effendi stressed that
It is devotion, sincerity and genuine enthusiasm which in the long run can ensure the completion of our beloved Temple. Material considerations, though essential, are not the most vital by any means.33From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer (30 December 1933). In The Institution of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár #48.
Ultimately, the tests of unity were overcome; institutions were established, matured, and learned how to function more and more effectively as they built both the Temple and a vibrant national community. As one writer has noted,
The real strength of the early American believers, men and women, was not that they were like-minded individuals who formed a harmonious, homogeneous community, but that despite their strong individualism they allowed the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh and the guidance of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to serve as beacons, as sources of inspiration and understanding, as they struggled to build a community that drew its unity from its diversity.34Whitmore, 28. This is a key achievement of the North American Bahá’ís through their temple-building project.
Time and again, the Guardian, Shoghi Effendi, told the Bahá’ís of North America that no other House of Worship would ever possess
the vast, the immeasurable potentialities with which this Mother Temple of the West, established in the very heart of so enviable a continent, and whose foundation stone has been laid by the hand of the Center of the Covenant Himself, has been endowed.35Shoghi Effendi, letter to the Bahá’ís of North America (28 March 1943), This Decisive Hour #108, https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/shoghi-effendi/decisive-hour/5#638973491. Two of these immeasurable potentialities,
the expansion of the community and
the unfoldment of its administration, bear a closer look. Unlike ‘Ishqábád, there were no external conditions to limit the growth of the Bahá’í community in the United States, and both ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi linked the temple-building process to the expansion of the Faith. Accordingly, both potentialities were developed conjointly. By 1944, for example, acting on the guidance of the Guardian, the North American community had completed the exterior of the House of Worship and established Bahá’í communities in every state of the United States and every province of Canada. Furthermore, the number of nine-member local Bahá’í councils, called Local Spiritual Assemblies, had doubled on the continent in a period of seven years, and Bahá’í communities were taking root in Central and South America—many supported by Bahá’í
pioneers who moved there from North America.36See Whitmore, 183.
In a letter dated 28 March 1943, the Guardian described the role the House of Worship in North America was
destined to play in hastening the emergence of the World Order of Bahá’u’lláh.37Shoghi Effendi, So Meritorious an Undertaking (28 March 1943) in This Decisive Hour: Messages from Shoghi Effendi to the North American Bahá’ís 1932-1946, #108. Available at https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/shoghi-effendi/decisive-hour/5#860561591. Advancement towards this goal is evident from the early years, in the gradual transfer of responsibility for the Temple project from an individual to a collective level. While ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had tasked Corinne True to spearhead the project when she had gone on pilgrimage in 1907, by 1920 He widened the scope of responsibility, counselling that
all the affairs related to the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár
are to be referred to the annual Convention and that
Whatever the Convention, with a majority of opinions, decides, must be accepted and executed.38Cited in Nathan Rutstein, with the assistance of Edna M. True, Corinne True: Faithful Handmaid of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (Oxford: George Ronald, 1987), 149. Another step towards realizing this vision of the North American Bahá’í community’s role in
hastening the emergence of the World Order of Bahá’u’lláh was the establishment and development of the institution of the Hazíratu’l-Quds (literally,
sacred fold) in concert with the House of Worship. Its purpose was to accommodate the community’s administrative work, serving as
the seat of the Bahá’í National Assembly and pivot of all Bahá’í administrative activity in future.39The Guardian described the function of the Hazíratu’l-Quds as follows: Complementary in its functions to those of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár—an edifice exclusively reserved for Bahá’í worship—this institution, whether local or national, will, as its component parts, such as the Secretariat, the Treasury, the Archives, the Library, the Publishing Office, the Assembly Hall, the Council Chamber, the Pilgrims’ Hostel, are brought together and made jointly to operate in one spot, be increasingly regarded as the focus of all Bahá’í administrative activity, and symbolize, in a befitting manner, the ideal of service animating the Bahá’í community in its relation alike to the Faith and to mankind in general. Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, rev ed (Wilmette: US Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1974), 339–40. Available at https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/shoghi-effendi/god-passes-by/24#198460320. acilities for
communal well-being such as those in ‘Ishqábád were not inaugurated until the construction was completed, when Shoghi Effendi called for
the erection of the first dependency of the first Mashriqu’l-Adhkár of the western world.40Shoghi Effendi, Citadel of Faith (Wilmette: US Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1965), 108. Available at https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/shoghi-effendi/citadel-faith/4#662916934. In response to this call, the Bahá’í Home for the Aged was established in 1959; it operated until 2002.
Looking at these first two Bahá’í Houses of Worship in ‘Ishqábád and Chicago allows us to see how differences in context and focus can affect the emergence of this institution and allow for emphasis to be given to one or another aspect, as appropriate to its matrix. In ‘Ishqábád, the Temple arose within the context of a very strong, active and united local community, and dependencies followed an organic course of development since public services, such as those related to the education of both boys and girls, for example, were not available. In Chicago, on the other hand, the Temple served as the catalyst for building unity of vision and purpose in the Bahá’í community of the entire continent of North America, developing its capacities to raise funds, to use the consultative process to achieve unity of thought and action regarding the design, to grow the community of believers attracted to the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh, and to develop administrative structures to guide and channel the energies of the community. Since public education and other services were widely available, Chicago did not devote energy to developing such dependencies; rather, under the guidance of Shoghi Effendi, it focused on building crucial administrative capacities that eventually affected the development and functioning of national and local Bahá’í communities throughout the entire hemisphere. In a sense, one could view the ‘Ishqábád Temple as a model for the emergence of a local House of Worship and the one in Chicago as a model for the
continental Houses of Worship that were established during the stage of temple building upon which the Bahá’í world community next embarked.
Continental, National, and Local Houses of Worship
With the dedication of the House of Worship in Wilmette in 1953, the Guardian called for the construction of
mother temples on other continents and, as Bahá’í National Assemblies were established in countries around the world, for the acquisition of lands to be used for future national temples. Like the North American House of Worship, these Mashriqu’l-Adhkárs represented beacons—visible manifestations of what will, over time, emerge in countless communities throughout the world. In contrast to the House of Worship in ‘Ishqábád, these continental temples did not emerge from matrices of intense local activity; rather, they represented a vision of worship and service to which emerging national Bahá’í communities in all parts of the world could orient themselves. They emerged over decades, their development guided by Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice: Africa (Kampala, Uganda) and Australia (Sydney) in 1961, Europe (Langenhain, Germany) in 1964, Central America (Panama City) in 1972, Oceania (Apia, Samoa) in 1984, and the Indian Subcontinent (Bahapur, New Delhi) in 1986. Only the South American Temple remained for many years unbuilt, and it was not until October 2016 that some 3,000 people from around the world gathered in Santiago, Chile, for its dedication—a moment that marked the culmination of a process set in motion over a century before.
Only the South American Temple remained for many years unbuilt, and it was not until October 2016 that some 3,000 people from around the world gathered in Santiago, Chile, for its dedication—a moment that marked the culmination of a process set in motion over a century before.
By this time, the Bahá’í world community had embarked on a further stage in the development of the institution of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár. In 2001, in its annual message to the Bahá’í world on the occasion of the Festival of Riḍván, the Universal House of Justice not only announced the construction of this final continental House of Worship, it also heralded the launch of a long-term process of
raising up … national Houses of Worship, as circumstances in national communities permit; 11 years later, at Riḍván 2012, it identified the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Papua New Guinea as the first two sites. This was an historic development, but there was more: in that same message, the House of Justice also announced that the first local Houses of Worship would be constructed in Battambang, Cambodia; Bihar Sharif, India; Matunda Soy, Kenya; Norte del Cauca, Colombia; and Tanna, Vanuatu. Progress on two of these local temples was very swift, and in September 2017—less than a year after the dedication of the final continental House of Worship—the world’s first local Bahá’í Mashriqu’l-Adhkár was dedicated in Battambang; this was followed, in July 2018, by the second, in Norte de Cauca, and plans are currently underway for the construction of the remaining three local and the two national temples.
To explore the reasons why the construction of these national and local Mashriqu’l-Adhkárs is timely and to understand their significance, it is helpful to examine the way they are described by the world-governing body. This will also aid us to reflect how the current process differs from efforts to build places of worship in previous religious dispensations.
In its message to those gathered for the dedication of the Santiago House of Worship, the Universal House of Justice described how the Bahá’í community in the city, supported by Bahá’ís from other communities throughout North, Central, and South America, learned how
to prepare the surrounding population for the emergence of the House of Worship; this involved developing the capacity to engage increasing numbers of the city’s population to participate systematically in
community-building endeavours and to sustain their actions over time. Through these efforts, visitors began to go to the Temple both to pray and to consult about
the practical and spiritual dimensions of the enterprise. 41Universal House of Justice, 1 August 2014. Through such means, construction and grassroots expansion efforts were for the first time united, marking a pivotal point in the global temple-building process.
This emphasis on the preparation of the population for the
emergence of the Temple is related to the processes of growth that have been pursued persistently and unitedly by the Bahá’í world community since 1996 as the latest stage in its global program of expansion and consolidation—processes that can be viewed as the latest stage in a systematic process to spread the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh to all the peoples of the world. From the inception of the Faith, its teachings were carried afar by lone travelling teachers; during the time of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, efforts became more focused, as individuals arose to travel or
pioneer in the far-flung countries or territories mentioned by Him in His Charter for the expansion of the Bahá’í community throughout the world, the Tablets of the Divine Plan. Under the direction of Shoghi Effendi, the diffusion was further broadened, as Bahá’ís settled and worked to establish communities in many more locations. Over time, these communities have taken root and flourished to the point where, during the past two decades, their members have learned how to effectively engage with friends, neighbors, coworkers, acquaintances, and receptive populations to work with them for the common weal.
In its Riḍván 2012 letter, the Universal House of Justice wrote:
… Humanity is weary for want of a pattern of life to which to aspire; we look to you to foster communities whose ways will give hope to the world. To this end, Bahá’ís have focused on four
core community-building areas: the enhancement of the devotional character of the community, particularly through the holding of gatherings where all are welcome to join in prayer, meditation, and the sharing of inspirational and sacred readings from their own faiths and traditions; the spiritual education of children; a program for the moral and spiritual empowerment of young adolescents; and the study of materials that will develop participants’ capacities to become protagonists themselves in these community-building processes.
Efforts to establish this pattern of life, which the Universal House of Justice describes as
a spiritual endeavour, one in which the whole community participates,42Universal House of Justice, Riḍván 2013. unite both worship and service. Here, one can see the connection to the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár, which,
Wherever it is established, … will naturally be an integral component of the process of community building that surrounds it—an awareness that is growing in localities where Houses of Worship are emerging.43Universal House of Justice, Riḍván 2013. While these core activities are all intertwined, the one that is first encouraged and forms the basis of the eventual emergence of a local House of Worship is the holding of devotional gatherings—its
In some countries, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Papua New Guinea, these
seeds have grown to the extent that the movement of entire populations toward the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh is becoming evident; thus, giving physical shape to the spiritual reality through the construction of a national House of Worship is timely. And as these teachings penetrate deeper and deeper into
the soil of society,44Universal House of Justice, Riḍván 2012. more national Houses of Worship will emerge. A similar process is visible in some small geographic areas (called
clusters) such as Battambang, Bihar Sharif, Matunda Soy, Norte del Cauca, and Tanna that have facilitated the raising up of great numbers of protagonists in the community-building activities within a concentrated space. As the Universal House of Justice noted at Riḍván 2012,
The correlation of worship and service is especially pronounced in those clusters around the world where Bahá’í communities have significantly grown in size and vitality, and where engagement in social action is apparent.45Universal House of Justice, Riḍván 2012. In such instances, the construction of a House of Worship becomes a logical extension of their efforts.
Clearly, much is being learned through these undertakings, and more will be written about them in the coming years. As such universal places of worship are given shape in more and more communities, providing for all inhabitants
a haven for the deepest contemplation on spiritual reality and foundational questions of life, including individual and collective responsibility for the betterment of society46Universal House of Justice, letter to the Bahá’ís of Iran (18 December 2014). In The Institution of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár #67. and serving as
an integral part of the process of community building,47Universal House of Justice, letter to an individual believer (12 December 2013). In The Institution of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár #78. members of the Bahá’í community are aware that
ceaseless cooperation and mutual support as well as
sacrifice must be the hallmark of their efforts.48From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to the National Spiritual Assembly of Egypt (14 May 1936), translated from the Arabic. In The Institution of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár #50. This, they have embraced in a spirit of joy and with a profound commitment to the process, eager
to nurture communities of spiritual distinction49From a letter to the Friends Gathered in Battambang, Cambodia, for the Dedication of the House of Worship (1 September 2017). In The Institution of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár #70. and
to galvanize an entire people to reach for a more profound sense of unified purpose.50From a letter to the Friends Gathered in Santiago, Chile, for the Dedication of the Mother Temple of South America (14 October 2016). In The Institution of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár #69.
In Norte del Cauca, the land is blanketed by sugar cane plantations. They run for miles, under the watchful gaze of the Andes.
Scattered amid the expanse of monoculture fields, villages and small farms dot the terrain. In recent decades, these traditional farms and the lush greenery of the region have been largely overtaken by vast fields of sugar cane crop.
Here, in the village of Agua Azul, and in neighboring communities, people have been talking about the revival of the natural habitat. This conversation was catalyzed in April 2012, when it was announced that a Baha’i House of Worship was to be built here for the people of the region.
Over the period since the announcement, as the community has set out to prepare itself for this momentous development, a heightened consciousness of the nature and purpose of the House of Worship has given rise to an acute awareness about the physical environment and its relationship to the spiritual and social well-being of the population.
“There were several meetings early on, when plans for the Temple were announced,” explains Ximena Osorio, a representative of the Colombian Baha’i community. “People were inspired by the concept of the House of Worship, how it brought together devotion and service, how it was to be a place of worship for everyone.”
“Gradually, conversations arose about the types of trees and flowers that would surround the Temple,” says Ms. Osorio. “They wanted the landscape to capture the beauty and diversity of the region.”
Over time, the conversation evolved. “An idea emerged,” continues Ms. Osorio. “We would grow a native forest on the land surrounding the Temple site. ”
The idea took root, and a team coalesced around the project.
Hernan Zapata, affectionately referred to within the community as “Don Hernan”, recently joined the initiative. A traditional farmer from the neighboring village of Mingo, he has worked the land his entire life.
Today, his is one of the remaining traditional farms in the region, and many of the species which are found on his land have all but disappeared in surrounding areas. His land provides a glimpse into the rich ecological diversity that had characterized Norte del Cauca only decades ago.
“The truth is that Norte del Cauca was once an immense forest,” explains Don Hernan. “But all of that has been destroyed. Now none of it exists.”
“One thing I want with this project,” he explains, “is that new generations should know what once existed. This native forest that we are going to grow should be a school, should be a place of learning.”
The project has captured the imagination of many others in the region as well. Throughout neighboring villages, individuals have begun to donate seeds and plants that can be grown on the land around the Temple site and in a greenhouse that has been built for the project by local volunteers.
Contributions have included indigenous species, such as the rare “Burilico” tree, which is near extinction in the region.
For Gilberto Valencia, a local factory worker and member of the project team, this initiative has connected him to his family history in Norte del Cauca.
“I’ve always been very motivated to know more about the land and about farming because, while I am not a farmer, I come from a long line of farmers. My father and his father always had a farm that they cultivated for the subsistence of the family, and for the sale of goods to others.”
The project inspired Mr. Valencia, who is married and a father, to begin studying environmental engineering.
“When I began working on the land surrounding the House of Worship, I felt at that moment, that the thing that we were going to build was going to change the natural environment,” he said. “This is a chance to change the destiny of the region.”
Mr. Valencia now works on the project alongside his ten year old son, Jason, the project team’s newest and youngest member.
In recent months, Jason has found himself immersed in the project, helping to transplant seeds and saplings to the temple site and working alongside his father to cultivate and protect the surrounding land.
“I have learned about trees I never knew existed,” says Jason, speaking about his experience. “I love working with my father on this project because, together, we’re going to revive many of the plants that have been lost.”
For Alex Hernan Alvarez, a resident of Agua Azul and member of the project team, what is happening in the village has profound implications for the children.
“Here, in Norte del Cauca, we don’t have land or spaces like this, open for everyone. I have three children, and it is very gratifying for me to think that I will leave something for them,” says Mr. Alvarez.
“Knowing that a verdant forest and magnificent House of Worship will bloom for future generations inspires in me a profound sense of dedication.”
Speaking of one of the indigenous trees of the region – the ‘Saman’ tree – Mr. Alvarez states, “The Saman is a traditional tree, beautiful and large. When my children go to the land to pray, they will have a place to sit, under that tree. This motivates me every day. This brings me joy.”
While the House of Worship is not yet built, in many important ways, it is already carrying out its purpose, inspiring the inhabitants of the region to connect with the sacred and reach for greater heights of service to their communities.
“The idea of the Temple, what it represents,” says Ms. Osorio, “is in itself cultivating in all of us – children, youth and adults – an appreciation for the importance of a life centered around worship of God and service to humanity.”
Not the least of the treasures which Bahá’u’lláh has given to the world is the wealth of His prayers and meditations. He not only revealed them for specific purposes, such as the Daily Prayers, the prayers for Healing, for the Fast, for the Dead, and so on, but in them He revealed a great deal of Himself to us. At moments it is as if, in some verse or line, we are admitted into His Own heart, with all its turbulent emotions, or catch a glimpse of the workings of a mind as great and deep as an ocean, which we can never fathom, but which never ceases to enrapture and astonish us.
If one could be so presumptuous as to try and comment on a subject so vast and which, ultimately, is far beyond the capacity of any merely mortal mind to analyse or classify, one might say that one of His masterpieces is the long prayer for the Nineteen Day Fast. I do not know if He revealed it at dawn, but He had, evidently, a deep association with that hour of the day when the life of the world is repoured into it. How could He not have? Was He not the Hermit of Sar-Galú, where He spent many months in a lonely stone hut perched on a hilltop; the sunrise must have often found Him waiting and watching for its coming, His voice rising and falling in the melodious chants of His supplications and compositions. At how many dawns He must have heard the birds of the wilderness wake and cry out when the first rays of the sun flowed over the horizon and witnessed in all its splendor the coming alive of creation after the night.
In this prayer it is as if the worshipper approaches the sun while the sun is approaching its daybreak. When one remembers that the sun, the lifegiver of the earth, has ever been associated with the God Power, and that Bahá’u’lláh has always used it in His metaphors to symbolize the Prophet, the prayer takes on a mystical significance that delights and inspires the soul. Turning to the budding day He opens His supplication:
“I beseech Thee, O my God, by Thy mighty Sign (the Prophet), and by the revelation of Thy grace amongst men, to cast me not away from the gate of the city of Thy presence, and to disappoint not the hopes I have set on the manifestations of Thy grace amidst Thy creatures.” Who has not, in order to better visualize himself in relation to the Kingdom of God, seen his own soul as a wanderer, weary and hopeful, standing at the Gates of the Heavenly City and longing for admittance? The worshipper gazes at the brightening sky in the east and waits, expectant of the mercy of God. He hears the “most sweet Voice” and supplicates that by the “most exalted Word” he may draw ever nearer the threshold of God’s door and enter under the shadow of the canopy of His bounty—a canopy which is already spreading itself, in mighty symbolic form, over the world in crimson, gold, and gray clouds.
The day waxes; the oncoming sun, in the prayer of Bahá’u’lláh, becomes the face of God Himself to which He turns, addressing words of infinite sweetness and yearning: “I beseech Thee, O my God, by the splendor of Thy luminous brow and the brightness of the light of Thy countenance, which shineth from the all-highest horizon, to attract me, by the fragrance of Thy raiment, and make me drink of the choice wine of Thine utterance.”
The soft winds of dawn, which must have often played over His face and stirred His black locks against His cheek, may have given rise to this beautiful phrase in His prayer: “I beseech Thee, O my God, by Thy hair which moveth across Thy face, even as Thy most exalted pen moveth across the pages of Thy tablets, shedding the musk of hidden meanings over the kingdom of Thy creation, so to raise me up to serve Thy Cause that I shall not fall back, nor be hindered by the suggestions of them who have cavilled at Thy signs and turned away from Thy face.” How deep, how poetical, how sincere are His words! The playing of the strands of hair recall to Him the fine tracing of the Persian script, revealing words from God that shed a divine fragrance in the lives of men. But that is not all. In His communion all the love and loyalty of His heart is roused, He supplicates to be made of the faithful, whom naught shall turn aside from the Path that leads them to their Lord.
The sun has risen, as if in answer to the cry of the worshipper to “enable me to gaze on the Day-Star of Thy Beauty. …” And as he continues his prayer it seems as if all nature were moving in harmony with it: “I beseech Thee, O my God, by the Tabernacle of Thy majesty on the loftiest summits, and the Canopy of Thy Revelations on the highest hills, to graciously aid me to do what Thy will hath desired and Thy purpose hath manifested.” North and south the glory spreads, a faint echo of that celestial beauty visible to the eye of Baha’u’llah and which He says: “shineth forth above the horizon of eternity.” So deeply does it penetrate the heart that it evokes the desire to “die to all that I possess and live to whatsoever belongeth unto Thee,” The soul is moved; all earthly things pale before the vision which, as symbolized in the sunrise, it beholds in the inner world; God, the “Well-beloved” seems to have drawn very near.
The winds flit over the land; some tree calls to the Prophet’s mind, as it shivers and stirs, the Tree of Himself that over-shadows all mankind: “I beseech Thee, O my God, by the rustling of the Divine Lote-Tree and the murmur of the breezes of Thine utterance in the kingdom of Thy names, to remove me far from whatsoever Thy will abhorreth, and draw me nigh unto the station wherein He who is the Day-Spring of Thy signs hath shone forth.” Bahá’u’lláh puts the words into our mouths whereby we may draw nigher to God and receive from Him the heavenly gifts: “I beseech Thee … to make known unto me what lay hid in the treasuries of Thy knowledge and concealed within the repositories of Thy wisdom.” “I beseech Thee … to number me with such as have attained unto that which Thou hast sent down in Thy Book and manifested through Thy will.” “I beseech Thee … to write down for me what Thou hast written down for Thy trusted ones. …”
And finally, in words designed for those countless worshippers for whom He wrote this glorious Fasting Prayer, He asks God to “ write down for every one who hath turned unto Thee, and observed the fast prescribed by Thee, the recompense decreed for such as speak not except by Thy leave, and who forsook all chat they possessed in Thy path and for love of Thee.” He asks that the silence of the good may descend upon them-both the silence and the speech of chose who are wholly dedicated to that Divine Will which alone can lead men to their highest destiny. The last thought of all is that those who have obeyed the decrees of God may be forgiven their trespasses.
This majestic prayer is composed of fourteen verses, each opening with the words “I beseech Thee …” and closing with the same refrain: “Thou seest me, O my God, holding to Thy Name, the Most Holy, the Most Luminous, the Most Mighty, the Most Great, the Most Exalted, the Most Glorious, and clinging to the hem of the robe to which have clung all in this world and in the world to come.” The rhythmical emphasis on the thoughts contained in these words is not only very powerful but very artistic—if one may borrow the term for lack of a better one–and the sense that all creatures living, and chose gone before into the invisible realms of God, are clinging to the skirt of His mercy, dependent on Him and Him alone, exerts a profound influence on one’s mind, particularly so when taken in conjunction with what one beholds at this hour of the day: The sky kindling with light, the brush of the wind gently over the face of nature; the whole world waking to the casks of living on all sides; all things dependent on God; they always have and they always will be. This is a little of what this long prayer conveys to the those who partake of it.
Another unique prayer of Bahá’u’lláh is His congregation prayer for the Dead. His Revelation throughout has aimed at doing away with every form of ritual; He has abolished priesthood; forbidden ceremonials, in the sense of church services with a set form; reduced the conduct of marriages to a naked simplicity, with a minimum uniform rite required of those concerned. The one exception to this general policy is the Prayer for the Dead, portions of which are repeated while all present are standing. Prayers such as this and the one for the Fast, can never be properly appreciated by merely reading them. They are living experiences. The difference is as great as looking at a brook while you are not thirsty, and drinking from it when you are. If you lose some one you love and then read aloud the glorious words, you come to know what “living waters” are:
“This is Thy servant … deal with him, O Thou Who forgivest the sins of men and concealest their faults, as beseemeth the heaven of Thy bounty and the ocean of Thy grace. Grant him admission within the precincts of Thy transcendent mercy that was before the foundation of earth and heaven. …” Simple words, words which follow our loved one out into the spaces where we may not follow. But the profound experience of this prayer is in the refrain, each sentence of which is repeated 19 times. “We all, verily, worship God. We all, verily, bow down before God. We all, verily, are devoted unto God. We all, verily, give praise unto God. We all, verily, yield thanks unto God. We all, verily, are patient in God.”
The very strength of the prayer is in the repetition. It is so easy to say just once, “We … bow down before God” or “We yield thanks unto God” or “We are patient in God”; the words slip off our minds swiftly and leave them much as before. But when we say these things over and over, they sink very deep, they go down into the puzzled, the rebellious, the grief stricken or numbly resigned heart and stir it with healing powers; reveal to it the wisdom of God’s decrees, seal it with patience in His ways,—ways which run the stars in their courses smoothly and carry us on to our highest good.
No form of literature in the whole world is less objective than prayers. They are things of motion, not of repose. They are speeches addressed to a Hearer; they are medicine applied to a wound; they stir the worshipper and set something in his heart at work. That is their whole purpose. Teachings, discourses, even meditations, can be read purely objectively and critically, but the man who can read a real prayer in the cold light of reason alone, has indeed strayed far from his own innate human nature, for all men, everywhere, at every period in their evolution, have possessed the instinct of supplication, the necessity of calling out to something, some One, greater than themselves, whether in their abasement it was a stone image, thunder or fire, or, in their glory, the invisible God of all men that they called upon, the instinct was there just as deeply.
Many wonderful prayers exist in all languages and all religions; but the prayers of Bahá’u’lláh possess a peculiar power and richness all their own. He calls upon God in terms of the greatest majesty, of the deepest feeling; sometimes with awe; sometimes with pathos; sometimes in a voice of such exultation that we can only wonder what transpired within his soul at such moments. He uses figures of speech that strike the imagination, stir up new concepts of the Divinity and expand infinitely our spiritual horizons. Much, no doubt, of their perfection is lost in translation as He often employed the possibilities and peculiarities of the Arabic and Persian languages to their fullest. Some of His prayers, following the style of the Súrihs of the Qur’án, end every sentence in rhyme—though they are not poems—and the custom of alliterating words, thus imparting a flowing sense of rhythm to the sentences, is very often resorted to in all His writings, including His prayers. Nevertheless the original charm and beauty pervades the translations and none of the lyric quality of the following prayer seems to have been lost. It rises like a beautiful hymn which lifts the soul on wings of song:
“From the sweet-scented streams of Thine eternity give me to drink, O my God, and of the fruits of the tree of Thy being enable me to taste, O my Hope! From the crystal springs of Thy love suffer me to quaff, O my Glory, and beneath the shadow of Thine everlasting providence let me abide, O my Light! Within the meadows of Thy nearness, before Thy presence, make me able to roam, O my Beloved, and at the right hand of the throne of Thy mercy, seat me, O my Desire! From the fragrant breezes of Thy joy let a breath pass over me, O my Goal, and into the heights of the paradise of Thy reality let me gain admission, O my Adored One! To the melodies of the dove of Thy oneness suffer me to hearken, O Resplendent One, and through the spirit of Thy power and Thy might quicken me, O my Provider! In the spirit of Thy love keep me steadfast, O my Succorer, and in the path of Thy good pleasure set firm my steps, O my Maker! Within the garden of Thine immortality, before Thy countenance, let me abide for ever, O Thou Who art merciful unto me, and upon the seat of Thy glory stablish me, O Thou Who art my Possessor! To the heaven of Thy loving-kindness lift me up, O my Quickener, and unto the Daystar of Thy guidance lead me, O Thou my Attractor! Before the revelations of Thine invisible spirit summon me to be present, O Thou Who art my Origin and my Highest Wish, and unto the essence of the fragrance of Thy beauty, which Thou wilt manifest, cause me to return, O Thou Who art my God!
“Potent art Thou to do what pleaseth Thee. Thou art, verily, the Most Exalted, the All-Glorious, the All-Highest.”
At times Bahá’u’lláh put words into the mouth of the worshipper according to his need: He writes a supplication for a child, for one who is ill, one who is sad, one who is pregnant, one who is a sinner, one who pours forth his heart to God—capturing the whole gamut of human emotions in His various communions. But at times it is obvious the prayer is His own. We read it, but we cannot be the speaker, or mortal feet cannot tread the path that lay between His soul—the soul of the Prophet Himself—and the God Who sent Him here among men to labor and suffer for them. “I know not,” He declares, “what the water is with which Thou hast created me, or what the fire Thou hast kindled within me, or the clay wherewith Thou hast kneaded me. The restlessness of every ocean hath been stilled, but not the restlessness of this Ocean which moveth at the bidding of the words of Thy will. The flame of every fire hath been extinguished, except the Flame which the hands of Thine omnipotence have kindled, and whose radiance Thou hast, by the power of Thy name, shed abroad before all that are in Thy heaven and that are on Thy earth. As the tribulations deepen, it waxeth hotter and hotter.” The Holy fire that burned within His being is not for us, frail creatures that we are, to comprehend. We can only gaze into its heart and marvel at its shifting hues and beauty, much as we marvel at the flames that leap and dance on our own hearth fires, though we may not approach or touch them.
Bahá’u’lláh exalts the being and nature of God, in His addresses to Him, as no other Prophet ever has. He defines His relation to Him; He gives us glimpses of the forces surging within His soul; He lay bare the emotions that stir within His turbulent breast. In words of honey He cries out: “Thou beholdest, O my God, how every bone in my body soundeth like a pipe with the music of Thine inspiration. …” A love far beyond our ken burns in His heart for the One God who sent Him down amongst men: “Thou seest, O Thou Who art my All-Glorious Beloved, the restless waves that surge within the ocean of my heart in my love for Thee. …” “Thou art, verily, the Lord of Bahá and the Beloved of his heart, and the Object of his desire, and the Inspirer of his tongue, and the Source of his Soul.” “Lauded be Thy name, O Thou Who art my God and throbbest within my heart!” “O would that they who serve Thee could taste what I have tasted of the sweetness of Thy love!” How keenly His soul thrilled with appreciation for the aid that poured into His inmost being from the Invisible Source: “Were I to render thanks unto Thee for the whole continuance of Thy kingdom and the duration of the heaven of Thine omnipotence, I would still have failed to repay Thy manifold bestowals.” How ardent is His gratitude to His Lord for raising Him up to serve His fellowmen: “How can I thank Thee for having singled me out and chosen me above all Thy servants to reveal Thee, at a time when all have turned away from Thy beauty!”
Ever and again He confesses His readiness, nay, His eagerness, to bear every trial and hardship for the sake of shedding the light of God upon this darkened world, and in order to demonstrate the greatness of the love He feels for His Creator: “I yield Thee thanks for that Thou hast made me the target of diverse tribulations and manifold trials in order that Thy servants may be endued with new life and all Thy creatures may be quickened.” “I yield Thee thanks, O my God, for that Thou hast offered me up as a sacrifice in Thy path … and singled me out for all manner of tribulation for the regeneration of Thy people.” “I swear by Thy glory! I have accepted to be tried by manifold adversities for no purpose except to regenerate all that are in Thy heaven and on Thy earth.” “How sweet is the thought of Thee in times of adversity and trial, and how delightful to glorify Thee when compassed about by the fierce winds of Thy decree.” “Every hair of my head proclaimeth: ‘But for the adversities that befall me in Thy path how could I ever taste the divine sweetness of Thy tenderness and love?’”
With what passion and majesty He testifies to the unquenchable power and purpose of His Lord—the Lord Whom He called His “Fire” and His “Light”—which burned within His breast: “Were all that are in the heavens and all that are on the earth to unite and seek to hinder me from remembering Thee and from celebrating Thy praise, they would assuredly … fail … And were all the infidels to slay me, my blood would … lift up its voice and proclaim: ‘There is no God but Thee, O Thou Who Art all my heart’s desire!’ And were my flesh to be boiled in the cauldron of hate, the smell which it would send forth would rise towards Thee and cry out: ‘Where art Thou, O Lord of the Worlds, the One Desire of them that have known Thee!’ And were I to be cast into fire, my ashes would—I swear by Thy glory—declare: ‘The Youth hath, verily, attained that for which he had besought His Lord the All-Glorious, the Omniscient.’”
Reading such testimonials that sprang in moments of who knows what exaltation?—from the heart of the prophet, we cannot but marvel at the mighty and strange bond that binds such a Being to the Source of all power. It is as if an invisible umbilical cord tied Him to His Creator; all His life, His motivations, His inspiration, His very words, flowed down this divine channel, as all the life, blood, and food of the babe flows in through that one bond it has with its mother. He throbbed in this mortal world with the vibrations of a celestial world; He set all things pulsating with Him, whether they knew it or not, and drew them up and closer to the throne of God. One of His most moving and sublime rhapsodies is included in a meditation in which He testifies to the power of the praise which He pours out to God, to transform and influence the hearts of others: “I yield Thee such thanks,” He declares, “as can direct the steps of the wayward towards the splendors of the morning light of Thy guidance. … I yield Thee such thanks as can cause the sick to draw nigh unto the waters of Thy healing, and can help those who are far from Thee to approach the living fountain of Thy presence …. I yield Thee such thanks as can stir up all things to extol Thee . . . and can unloose the tongues of all beings to … magnify Thy beauty … I yield Thee such thanks as can make the corrupt tree to bring forth good fruit … and revive the bodies of all beings with the gentle winds of Thy transcendent grace. … I yield Thee such thanks as can cause Thee to forgive all sins and trespasses, and to fulfill the needs of the peoples of all religions, and to waft the fragrances of pardon over the entire creation. … I yield Thee such thanks as can satisfy the wants of all such as seek Thee, and realize the aims of them that have recognized Thee. I yield thee such thanks as can blot out from the hearts of men all suggestions of limitation. …”
Poetic and stirring as these words are, we need not assume them to be merely the effusions of an exalted and over-filled heart. Bahá’u’lláh was never idle in His words. If He tells us that enshrined in the thanks He poured forth to His God is a power that can blot out every limitation from the hearts of men, it is so. The trouble is with us. How many Seers and Prophets, how many scientists and pioneers, have brought men tidings of truths and powers they knew not of and offered them to their generation, only to be spat upon, laughed to scorn, killed or ignored? And in the end a more enlightened people would take the key and open the door and find the wonders that the incredulous disbelieved, to be all true, ready at hand, waiting to be used for their good. The Prophets of God are intent on giving us both the good of this world and the one awaiting us after death, but most of the time we will not have it. We, blind and perverse, prefer our own ways! Did not Christ say: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, … how often would I have gathered Thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” It is not a new story. Every Divine Manifestation has placed jewels in the hands of man, only to see them flung aside for some foolish toy of his choosing.
Yet each Prophet has assured us that God’s pity knows no bounds. “Thou art, in truth,” states Bahá’u’lláh in one of His prayers, “He Who mercy hath encompassed all the worlds, and Whose grace hath embraced all who dwell on earth and in heaven. Who is there who hath cried after Thee, and whose prayers hath remained unanswered? Where is he to be found who hath reached forth towards Thee, and whom Thou hast failed to approach? Who is he who can claim to have fixed his gaze upon Thee, and towards whom the eye of Thy loving-kindness hath not been directed? I bear witness that Thou hadst turned toward Thy servants ere they had turned toward Thee, and hadst remembered them ere they had remembered Thee.”
It is an education in divinity to read Bahá’u’lláh’s prayers. He maintained the unique nature of God, the utter impossibility of any creature approaching or comprehending Him, in a clear and graphic manner. The unseen God of Moses; the “Father” of Christ, unto Whom none cometh to but through the Son; the One of Whom Muhammad so beautifully said: “Eyes see Him not but He sees the eyes,” is exalted, one might say, to unimaginable heights by Him. “Thou art He Whom all things worship and Who worshipeth no one, Who is the Lord of all things and the vassal of none, Who knoweth all things and is known of none.” “From everlasting Thou hast existed alone with no one beside Thee, and wilt, to everlasting, continue to remain the same, in the sublimity of Thine essence and the inaccessible heights of Thy glory,” He declares. In a short and wonderful prayer He solemnly sets forth the fundamental doctrine of the nature of God with a lucidity and power that would, in any past dispensation, have gained it first place in the dogmas of the church:
“God testifieth to the unity of His Godhood and to the singleness of His Own Being. On the throne of eternity, from the inaccessible heights of His station, His tongue proclaimeth that there is none other God but Him. He Himself, independently of all else, hath ever been a witness unto His own oneness, the revealer of His own nature, the glorifier of His own essence. He, verily, is the All-Powerful, the Almighty, the Beauteous.
“He is supreme over His servants, and standeth over His creatures. In His hand is the source of authority and truth. He maketh men alive by His signs, and causeth them to die through His wrath. He shall not be asked of His doings and His might is equal unto all things. He is the Potent, the All-Subduing. He holdeth within His grasp the empire of all things, and on His right hand is fixed the Kingdom of His Revelation. His power, verily, embraceth the whole of creation. Victory and over-lordship are His; all might and dominion are His; all glory and greatness are His. He, of a truth, is the All-Glorious, the Most Powerful, the Unconditioned.”
The “Unconditioned.” That one word provides ample food for thought. Some of the adjectives Bahá’u’lláh uses for the Godhead are most striking and seem to plow up our minds and prepare them for an infinitely deeper and richer concept of the One on Whom we depend for everything we have, be it physical or spiritual. For instance: “O God Who art the Author of all Manifestations . . . the Fountain-Head of all Revelations, and the Well-Spring of all Lights.” As words are the tools of men’s thoughts, they are tremendously important. The “Well-Spring of all Lights,” though but another way of saying, that all the Prophets are generated by God, presents a tremendous mental picture to a man who has studied something of modern astronomy, of a universe which is light upon light, of matter which itself is the stuff of which light is made. Compare the mental picture this phase conjures up with that of an anthropomorphic God, bearded, stern and much like a human grandfather, who created the world in six days and took a rest on the seventh! Though no doubt when that metaphor was propounded it opened up men’s minds to a new and wider concept of the Divinity. A being Who could do all that in six days was worthy of worship and to be strictly obeyed!
Bahá’u’lláh calls God “the Pitier of thralls,” “the Pitier of the downtrodden,” “the Help in peril,” “the Great Giver,” “the Restorer”—words which sink into our hearts these dark days with an added comfort as we see so many of our fellow-men downtrodden, in deadly danger, despoiled and broken. He tells us that this “King of Kings,” this “Quickener of every mouldering bone,” this “Enlightener of all creation” Who is the “Lord of all mankind” and the “Lord of the Judgment Day” is the One “Whom nothing whatsoever can frustrate.” Such a God will right all wrongs and rule the world for the good of man! Grievous, on the other hand, as are our sins, as testified by these words: “Wert Thou to regard Thy servants according to their deserts … they would assuredly merit naught except Thy chastisement …” He yet assures us, in the words He addresses to God, that: “All the atoms of the earth testify that Thou art the Ever-Forgiving, the Benevolent, the Great Giver …” and that “the whole universe testifieth to Thy generosity.” Even though He be the Lord “Whose strength is immense, Whose decree is terrible,” yet we can confidently turn to Him, and, in Bahá’u’lláh’s words declare: “A drop out of the ocean of Thy mercy sufficeth to quench the flames of hell, and a spark of the fire of Thy love is enough to set ablaze a whole world.”
Our world is steadily sinking into ruin. We have waxed proud and forgotten our God—as many a people has before us to its soul’s undoing—and turned away from Him, disbelieved in Him, followed proudly our own fancies and desires. No Being that was not such a Being as Bahá’u’lláh depicts would still hold open His door to us! And yet in how many passages such as these the way back, the way we once trod but have now, for the most part, forgotten, is pointed out to us and words placed in our mouths that are food for our sick hearts and souls: “Cleanse me with the waters of Thy Mercy, O my Lord, and make me wholly Thine. …” “I am all wretchedness, O my Lord, and Thou art the Most Powerful, the Almighty!” “Thy Might, in truth, is equal to all things!” “Whosoever has recognized Thee will turn to none save Thee, and will seek for naught else except Thyself.” “Help me to guard the pearls of Thy love, which by Thy decree, Thou hast enshrined in my heart.” “‘Many a chilled heart, O my God, hath been set ablaze with the fire of Thy Cause, and many a slumberer hath been awakened by the sweetness of Thy voice.”
Of such stuff as these is the treasury of prayers which Bahá’u’lláh has left us. They are suited to the child before he goes to sleep at night, to the mystic, to the busy man of practical outlook, to the devout. An instance of the comprehension and tolerance with which He viewed human nature is the fact that He revealed a choice of three daily, and obligatory, prayers. While imposing on men the obligation of turning to their Creator once, at least, during every day, He provided a means of doing so suited to widely different natures. One takes about thirty seconds to recite and is to be said at the hour of noon; one is longer and is to be used three times during the day; and the third is very long and profound, accompanied by many genuflexions, and may be used any time during the twenty-four hours of the day. The Divine Physician provided us with what we might call a spiritual polish with which to brighten our hearts. We need this renewal which comes through turning to the Sun of Eternal Truth—as every bird and beast, be it ever so humble, responds to the light of the physical sun at dawn—but he gave latitude to the individual state of development and temperament.
Some Westerners have found the long Daily Prayer very strange; no doubt this is because the present generation has ceased to feel intimate with its God. For a man to stand alone in his room and stretch his arms out to nothingness, or kneel down before a blank wall, in the midst of familiar objects, seems to him unnatural and even foolish. This is because he has lost the sense of the “living God.” God, far from being to him, as the Qur’án says, “nearer than his life’s vein,” has become more of an X in some vast equation. And yet men that we honor and men that we long to emulate have not felt shy before their God. Many a burly crusader knelt on the stones of Jerusalem where he felt His Lord’s feet might have trod, and the Pilgrim Fathers did not feel self-conscious on their knees when turning to God who had led them to a new and freer homeland. The prayers of Bahá’u’lláh will help lead us back to that warm sense of the reality and nearness of God, through use. He makes no compulsion, He takes our hand and guides us into the safe road trodden by our forefathers.
No survey, however cursory and inadequate, of His Prayers would be complete without quoting one of the most passionate and moving of them all, one associated with probably the saddest hours of His whole life. After His banishment from Persia to ‘Iráq the initial signs of envy and hatred began to be apparent from His younger brother, Mírzá Yaḥyá. In order to avoid open rupture and the consequent humiliation of the Faith in the eyes of the non-believers, Bahá’u’lláh retired for two years to the wilderness of Kurdistan and lived, unknown, as a dervish among its people.
During His absence the situation, far from improving, now that the field was left open and uncontested to Mírzá Yaḥyá, steadily deteriorated. Shameful acts took place and conditions became so acute that the believers sent a messenger in search of Baha’u’llah to report to Him and beseech His return. Reluctantly He turned His face towards Baghdad. He was going back to mount the helm; storms lay ahead of Him of a severity and bitterness no other Prophet had ever known; behind Him, once and for all, He left a measure of peace and seclusion. For two years He had communed with His own soul. He had written wonderful poems and revealed beautiful prayers and treatises. Now He headed back into the inky blackness of an implacable hatred and jealousy, where attempts against His very life were to be plotted and even prove partially successful. As He tramped along through the wilderness, beautiful in its dress of spring, the messenger that had gone to fetch Him back testified that He chanted over and over again this prayer. It rolled forth like thunder from His agonized heart:
“O God, my God! Be Thou not far from me, for tribulation upon tribulation hath gathered about me. O God, my God! Leave me not to myself, for the extreme of adversity hath come upon me. Out of the pure milk, drawn from the breasts of Thy loving-kindness, give me to drink, for my thirst hath utterly consumed me. Beneath the shadow of the wings of Thy mercy shelter me, for all mine adversaries with one consent have fallen upon me. Keep me near to the throne of Thy majesty, face to face with the revelations of the signs of Thy glory, for wretchedness hath grievously touched me. With the fruits of the tree of Thine Eternity nourish me, for uttermost weakness hath overtaken me. From the cups of joy, proffered by the hands of Thy tender mercies, feed me, for manifold sorrows have laid mighty hold upon me. With the broidered robe of Thine omnipotent sovereignty attire me, for poverty hath altogether despoiled me. Lulled by the cooing of the Dove of Thine Eternity, suffer me to sleep, for woes at their blackest have befallen me. Before the throne of Thy oneness, amid the blaze of the beauty of Thy countenance, cause me to abide, for fear and trembling have violently crushed me. Beneath the ocean of Thy forgiveness, faced with the restlessness of the leviathan of glory, immerse me, for my sins have utterly doomed me.”