A Message from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Head of the Bahá’ís
The Time Has Come, He Says, for Humanity to Hoist the Standard of the Oneness of the Human World, So That Dogmatic Formulas and Superstitions May End.
WITHIN the last week there has come to New York an old man, with a worn and beautiful face, who wears a long brown gown and a white turban, and speaks the strange-sounding guttural language of Persia. On the pier he was welcomed by hundreds of people, for he is ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, or “The Servant of God,” the head of the Bahá’í movement, and he is known to tens of thousands of followers all over the world as the “Master.”
For forty years he has been in prison, and his father, the former head of the Bahá’ís, died in prison. Their offense was indeed great, for they taught a doctrine against which no autocratic power could stand. They preached the love of God and the brotherhood of man and for this the Persian Government exiled and the Turkish Government imprisoned them.
Four years ago, in July 1908, the young Turks came into the control of the Government and a constitution was given to the country. Then the prison doors opened for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and he found himself free. He had gone into the prison a boy; he left it an old man.
He had not complained and indeed for some years it had been made easy for him by the affection of his jailers and the gradual perception, by the Government, of the fact that a man who teaches the common brotherhood of all humanity may not be personally violent; but none the less he rejoiced in his freedom. With the passing of the years his followers had grown rapidly and he had a wish to see them, especially those who lived in foreign countries.
Although he was old and had not for more than forty years gone beyond the city of Acre, in Syria, he was attracted by the thought of seeing the big world. The Bahá’í believe above all things in education and in broadening the mind by contact with all nations and races, so it was eminently consistent for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to go first to London and then to come to America to see the many disciples in this country.
The Bahá’í movement is not yet seventy years old and has grown amazingly. It has suffered persecutions which may be equaled but can hardly be surpassed by the martyrdoms of the early Christians.
A young Persian, who called himself the Báb or the “Gate,” arose in 1814 and began to preach a doctrine of spirituality. He rated the Mohammedan Pharisees, and declared that the truth of religion had been so encumbered with ceremonies and dogmas that there must be radical and immediate reforms. In a few years he had won many followers, and the Government became alarmed. Great persecutions were begun and during the years in which the Báb preached there were perhaps 30,000 martyrs. Soon he himself fell a victim to the official hatred and was hanged against a wall and shot.
Some years after his death the leadership of the Bahá’í fell on a Persian of great wealth and high rank. He received the name of Bahá’u’lláh, (Glory of God,) and in the early ’60s he revived the persecuted faith and gathered together its scattered followers. The movement, which had seemed to be on the verge of collapse, suddenly became more vigorous than ever.
His property was promptly confiscated, and he was exiled. To be rid of his wealth was a satisfaction to Bahá’u’lláh - “Praise be to God,” he cried, “I am now free,” - but the exile entailed great hardships.
He went with his family to Bagdad, where he taught what seemed to the mind of the Government pernicious doctrines. “The army of the Bahá’í dispensation,” he said, “is the love of God; its victory is the ecstasy of the knowledge of God; its battle is that of truth; its warfare is against selfishness; its patience is its reserve; its entire meekness is its conquering power and its love for all is a glory for ever more.” It was too much for any autocracy. He was summoned to Constantinople and then sent to the prison at Acre.
In his prison Bahá’u’lláh wrote a book of laws which govern his followers and he simplified the teachings of the Báb and made the movement universal rather than Persian and Mohammedan. Despite his sufferings, which were great at the beginning of his confinement, he accomplished a vast deal of work and later on when his jailers had learned to love and trust him he received friends from time to time and was able to spread his teachings in that manner.
In 1892 he died and his son, Abbas Effendi now known as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá the Servant of God, took his place as leader. There is no tradition that the leadership should pass from father to son; there is indeed no priesthood among the Bahá’ís. It was the spirituality of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá which made him the person best suited to interpret the movement to the world.
Like his father he teaches that the love of God and man are the only things that count. To be a Bahá’í one does not have to give up the religion in which one has been born. A Christian remains a Christian, a Mohammedan remains a Mohammedan, a Buddhist is still a Buddhist. Only they emphasize not the doctrines of their faiths but the spirit. And they are all brothers to one another.
To do away with prejudices - this is the lesson ‘Abdu’l-Bahá preaches. Prejudices of nationality, of race, of religion - all these are hindrances to the love of God and of man, and we must forget them. Up to the present perhaps as many as 50,000 persons have died for this belief.
Needless to say ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is a much occupied man, and it was not easy to secure an appointment with him. He is not exclusive in his ideas by any manner of means. In his house at Acre all men and women are welcome at all times, but he has to be shielded a little by his friends that he may not overexert himself in his desire to make all the world welcome.
The reception room in his apartment was filled with flowers. There was not long to wait for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is prompt and business like. In two minutes a young Persian opened a door and asked the reporter to enter.
A rather small man with a white beard and the kindest and gentlest face in the world held out a hand, In his brown habit he was extraordinarily picturesque, but one did not think long of that, for he smiled a charming smile and, walking before and holding his visitor’s hand, he led her to a chair. Then he seated himself in another chair, facing her, and spoke in Persian to the younger man, who interpreted.
“He says,” said the interpreter, “that you are welcome, most welcome.”
The reporter said she was grateful to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá for receiving her. To this, when translated, the Master said, politely, that he, also, was most happy at the meeting. The reporter had been told that she need not ask a question to begin the conversation, but that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá would speak, so after the exchange of courtesies, she kept silent while the old man, who has spent his life in a Turkish prison, looked at her with the interest one feels in a new specimen of humanity.
Then he began to speak in short sentences, without waiting for replies. The interpreter translated them in perfect English.
“Praise be to God, the women of America are progressing.
“This is as it should be. Every day they are making more and more progress.
“I hope that they will be the peers of men. They should progress equally with men.
“This is according to the institution of Bahá’u’lláh, that there should not be a difference between men and women.
“In the kingdom of the animals there is male and female, but they are equals. In the vegetable kingdom also there is male and female, but one is the equal of the other. So should it be with mankind.
“In idealism women are the superiors of men in kindness and in gentleness, but they are now their inferiors in intellectuality. This should not be.
“Women should progress intellectually until they stand side by side with men.
“The women of America are progressing toward this, and they will attain it, for it is just. Women shall indeed be the equals and the companions of men.”
The words delivered in this fashion, in short epigrams, took one miles and miles away from New York. Outside the window was Broadway; under the building the subway; downstairs was all the paraphernalia of a big hotel, but all these things were far less real than the picture the old teacher called up. The only things that seemed near were the mountains of Carmel, so near the Village of Nazareth, and the fields where the lilies grow more beautiful than Solomon in his glory.
The strangeness of it all, the manner of speaking, the curious language, the unfamiliar dress might well have made the listener awkward and ill at ease; but one does not feel awkward with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The reporter had wondered just how to address him, but that seemed a foolish matter now. It really made no difference what you did or what you said, this kind old teacher would know that you mean well.
When he had spoken his words in the cause of women ‘Abdu’l-Bahá paused and inquired graciously if the visitor wished to ask a question.
“Ask him,” ventured the reporter, “for a message to Americans. Tell him that a great newspaper sent me, and that many thousands will read what he says.”
When this was translated to him the Teacher’s face lighted up with the charming smile. He was evidently pleased and interested that a big newspaper should have sent a woman - so, at least, the smile seemed to signify.
With some gestures and with his bright eyes now on his interpreter and now on his visitor, he began again to speak in short sentences.
“Praise be to God, the dark ages have passed.
“A new age of great brilliancy has been ushered in. The minds of men have developed. Man has made discoveries in the mysteries of nature. The great capabilities of the human world have become manifest. The susceptibilities of the heart have become more acute.
“The time has arrived for the world of humanity to hoist the standard of the oneness of the human world, so that solidarity and unity may connect all the nations of the world, so that dogmatic formulas and superstitions may end, so that the essential reality underlying all the religions founded by all the prophets may be revealed.
“That reality is one.
“It is the love of God.
“It is the progress of the world.
“It is the oneness of humanity.
“It is the bond which can unite all the human race.
“It is the attainment of the benefits of the most great peace; it is discarding of warfare.
“It is progressiveness; it is the undertaking of colossal tasks in life; it is the oneness of public opinion.
“Therefore arrive, oh ye people, and put forth your efforts that this reality may overcome the lesser forces in life, that this king of reality may alone rule all humanity.
“Thus may the world of mankind be reformed.
“Thus may a new Springtime be ushered in and a fresh spirit may resuscitate man.
“The individuals of humanity, like refreshed plants, shall put forth leaves and shall blossom and fructify so that the face of the earth shall become the long promised and delectable paradise, so that the great bestowal - the supreme virtues of man - shall glisten over the face of the earth.
“Then shall the world of existence have attained maturity.
“This is my message.”
He ceased speaking. There had been no pause in the little sermon, one sentence had followed as fast as the reporter could write them down, though he was always careful not to speak too rapidly for her convenience. It had been for one so busy a long interview, and the reporter rose.
The master of the Bahá’ís rose too, with all his benevolent and fatherly heart in his kind eyes. He gave a little but very humorous laugh and patted his visitor on the shoulder, speaking to the interpreter, who smiled too.
“He says,” translated the interpreter, “that he is pleased with you.”
Then, obeying a gesture, he took a rose from a vase and brought it to his master.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá put it in the reporter’s hand and gave his parting blessing.
“May the divine spirit help you to do great works in the world,” he said gently.
In a minute the door had closed and the reporter stepped from Palestine to the conventional hotel sitting room. The interpreter was beside her.
“Is he not a kind man?” he asked, all his face aglow with affection for his master. “He is the kindest man in the world.”
“You travel with him?”
“Yes, I interpret for him. I am his nephew.”
An American Bahá’í came up. His fashion of putting his devotion was somewhat in contrast to the Oriental way of speaking that had prevailed in the apartment, but it bore witness to the love the master inspires.
“For that man,” he said, “I’d jump head first from a fifteenth-story window.”
So it is with everybody who has come in contact with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. In Acre he is loved by rich and poor, by Mohammedan and Christian, by men of all races. He takes literally the Scriptural injunction to give his goods to the poor, for he has rarely more than the clothes he wears, and the gifts he receives from his disciples all over the world soon find their way to those who, he thinks, need them more.
A faith that is lived must grow, and Bahá’ísm spreads in India, in Africa, in Persia, in England and France, and in the United States. It is not easy to give up prejudices, but Bahá’ís who have done so find that they are considerably happier without them.
“I used to wash my hands after shaking hands with a Christian,” said a Mohammedan Bahá’í. “Now I want to shake hands with all the world.”
[picture caption: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Head of the Bahá’ís Movement. (Copyright Underwood & Underwood.)]