It was at Constantinople in 1908 that I first heard of a group of Persians, known as Baha’is who were said to be associated with a movement for the promotion of peace and brotherhood among members of all religious faiths. On further enquiry I discovered that their leader, known as Abdu’l Baha (Servant of God), son of the Founder of the Movement, Baha’u'llah, had been a prisoner for nearly forty years and was still confined with his family in the fortress city of Akka in Palestine.
A few months later news was received in London that following the Young Turkish revolution, a general amnesty for religious and political prisoners had been granted and it was in this way that the head of the Baha’i Community regained his freedom.
There can be few alive today who had personal contact with Baha’u'llah, the Founder of the Baha’i Faith; and there can be very few Westerners still alive who knew his son, Abdu’l Baha.
My only link with Baha’u'llah apart from Abdu’l Baha himself was the late Professor Browne, of Cambridge, who has left a record of his meeting in the 188o’s with Baha’u'llah, who, after spending many years in Persian and Turkish prisons, died in confinement at Akka in 1892.
The impression left on Professor Browne was one of surpassing spiritual majesty, accompanied by an aura of holiness leaving no doubt that here one was in the presence of a Messenger from God.
The Coming of Baha’u'llah was heralded by a forerunner known as the Bab (The Gate), who predicted the advent of a Prophet destined to bring fresh illumination to the world. Baha’u'llah was born at Nur in Persia in 1819.
The primary mission of the Baha’i Faith is to enable every follower of earlier world beliefs to obtain a fuller understanding of the religion with which he already stands identified and to acquire a clear apprehension of its purpose. In modern times this will involve the emergence of a worldwide community, a consciousness of universal citizenship and the founding of an international language and culture.
The Baha’i credo is now increasingly demonstrating its right to be recognised not as one more religious system superimposed on the conflicting creeds which have divided mankind for so long, but rather as a restatement of the eternal verities underlying all religions. Its function would seem to be that of a unifying force, instilling into the followers of every Faith a spiritual vigour, infusing them with a new hope and love for mankind, fixing them with a new vision of fundamental unity and unfolding to their eyes the noble destiny that awaits the human race.
The basic principle enunciated by Baha’u'llah is that religious truth is not absolute but relative, that divine revelation is a continuous and progressive process, that all the great Faiths are divine in origin, that their aims and purposes are the same, that their functions are complementary, and that their missions represent successive stages in the evolution of human society.
Although Abdu’l Baha (who was always known to his family, followers and friends in affectionate reverence as “The Master”) would often quote his father’s sayings and relate various incidents from his life, he never gave descriptions of his personality, and we are told that the pictures which have come down to us give a very poor impression of his father’s stature and dignity.
He wished to be remembered not by his person or his human frame, but by his teachings, and his actions. In this respect, one is sure that Abdul Baha, too, would not wish his personality, his physical aspect, to obscure the inspiration of his teachings and the example of his life. I was in close contact with him on many occasions, in Palestine, Egypt, Paris, London and Bristol, and although I retain a clear picture of his gracious and dignified personality, it would not be easy to translate such a picture into adequate words.
The most abiding impression I received from intimate contact with him was his immense breadth of outlook, permeated with the spirit of deep and loving kindness. Whatever the topic under discussion—ranging from religion to the weather, from sunsets to the flowers, from ethics to personal behaviour, Abdu’l Baha always struck the universal note, the note of Oneness as between the Creator and all His creation, great or small.
There is a certain similarity between the origin of the Christian Faith and this modem restatement of the same eternal truths.
As already mentioned, it was the Bab who acted as a John the Baptist in heralding the advent of a great Teacher. He and over 20,000 others were destined to be martyred for their beliefs.
The fundamental truths of life and conduct as proclaimed through Jesus have been reaffirmed in picturesque language by the Baha’i leaders, this reaffirmation being worded to meet the needs of our complex modern “civilization”. The Founders of both these Faiths possessed outstanding powers of healing and seership. Here the comparison ends, for Baha’u'llah was succeeded in his Messianic role by his son, whereas Jesus left no single successor behind him. The ultimate brotherhood of all Mankind, the Oneness of Truth, the spiritual basis behind all Religions, the appeal for the establishment of universal peace—all these are ideals which had been proclaimed by previous Messengers from God.
Like the Quakers, Baha’is renounce the use of force or violence of any kind. So far as I know no attempt was ever made to rescue their leaders from a period of forty years of confinement in Turkish prisons. Baha’is are as pacifist in outlook as the early Christians tried to be.
What is the special appeal voiced by Baha’u'llah and his son, which has resulted in so many of their followers the world over asserting that they are no longer Jews, Christians, Moslems or Buddhists, as such but have become Baha’is?
The answer may well be that as each religious revelation becomes crystallised, dogmatic and formal, the need arises for Truth to be restated in terms that conform to the needs of the new hour.
This book so far as been mainly concerned with an attempt to throw fresh light upon the life and times of Jesus as the supreme pioneer and exponent of the Christian ethic. This ethic has never yet been given a fair trial, with the result that we now find ourselves in a dangerous and parlous condition.
To what extent can the Baha’i and other spiritual movements of modern times bring this ethic into practice? It may be of some interest to set down my own fragmentary memories of the daily life and outlook of Abdu’l Baha, as I knew him, and as a man rather than as a Prophet, not with the intention of making a comparison with Jesus, but in the hope of throwing some light upon the ways through which important spiritual movements come into being. Much of the material that follows is fragmentary and may often seem trivial. Trivial incidents in a context of this kind may, however, conceal significant lessons. I should make it clear that, in my view, Jesus’ advent in our midst was and is a unique event in world history, an event that is as real and availably present today as it ever was. There can be no question of comparing the status of the various Messengers who from time immemorial have descended among us, each inspired by the Christ principle in his own time and way.
It is from this standpoint that my memories of Abdu’l Baha should be viewed. He was a man of great spiritual stature and prophetic vision and I shall always cherish the affection he bestowed upon me and the inspiration that his life and example have given to me ever since he first came into my life in 1908.
Footnote: In the East the title of “Master” is given to the head of the family or the clan. It is also used to designate the leaders of both secular and religious movements. It is in this sense that I refer to Abdul Baha as the Master.
“Ye Are All the Fruits of One Tree, and the Leaves of One Branch”
In the early years of this century the problem of translation was a very difficult one, because no English linguists were available, and the knowledge of English among those of the Master’s entourage was scanty to a degree. Only rarely, as I have recorded elsewhere, was I privileged to overcome this problem, when I spoke easily with the Master in a language which surmounted the barriers of the human tongue. I have known times when he realised instinctively that he was being translated incorrectly and then insisted on a fresh interpretation.
There was an occasion in Ramleh when one of his Persian followers was being interviewed by newspaper correspondents. The Master was in the next room but within hearing distance. When asked about his Faith this follower proudly proclaimed that he was a Baha’i and not a Christian. Abdul Baha came into the room at this juncture and naturally the Press reporters turned their attention to him exclusively. One of them knew Arabic well and was able to glean the substance of the Master’s discourse. To the surprise of most present, this consisted of an exposition of the spiritual principles which formed the basis for the teaching of “His Holiness the Christ”.
He made it clear that these great principles also formed the foundations for the Message proclaimed by Baha’u'llah, but set forth in a manner most suitable for the needs of humanity in the modern world.
He insisted that his father had come to proclaim anew the unity underlying all religions. He also spoke of the danger of exclusiveness which could only lead to the establishment of a new sect and an abandonment of all that was best and true in Christianity and the ancient world scriptures.
Coffee was then served and to show his friendly tolerance, Abdul Baha accepted a cigarette from one of the reporters, allowed it to be lighted, put it to his mouth, and then laid it aside.
Alas, that the full account of this very important occasion has disappeared in the mists of time. Although of a little less than medium height, Abdu’l Baha made an impression on all who met him by his dignity, friendliness, and his aura of spiritual authority. His blue-grey eyes radiated a luminosity of their own and his hands were beautiful in their grace and healing magnetism. Even his movements were infused with a kind of radiance.
His compassion for the aged, for children and the downtrodden knew no bounds. I remember once after he had visited a Salvation Army refuge near the Embankment, in London, tears came to his eyes. He could not understand how a wealthy nation like Britain could allow such poverty and loneliness in its midst. He spoke about this to Archdeacon Wilberforce of Westminster Abbey and to Dr. R. J. Campbell of the City Temple and he provided a sum of money through London’s Lord Mayor for the succour of the poor and derelict, then so prominent a feature of the London scene.
In speaking to me, he often referred to the need for providing food and sustenance for those in want, as a primary requisite to supplying moral and spiritual food for the heart and for the mind.
The famous declaration that we are all leaves of the same Tree was a constant theme in his conversation. He would dwell in this connection on the example of Jesus, the over-whelming love and understanding of “His Holiness the Christ”.
The Master’s visit to America left him sad and bewildered. He made it clear to me that the opportunity would be given to our Island and its people to lead the world out of its present darkness into the light of a new day.
At that time, now over half a century ago, it did not seem to me that Abdu’l Baha envisaged the establishment of a new and separate “Religion”. All the stress of his teaching was laid on the leavening effect of the Baha’i message on the religions already in existence and which were themselves in such urgent need of spiritual regeneration from within. The Master made it clear that to create an entirely new and separate religious organisation at that time should be resisted vigorously.
It was on this occasion that I presented to the Master gifts from his English friends. I had travelled from Marseilles on a steamer called the Sphinx and intended to return overland via. Damascus, Smyrna, Constantinople and Vienna. My return ticket and reservations for the round trip were arranged before I left London. On arrival at Alexandria I lost no time in visiting my revered friend and in carrying out the commission with which I had been entrusted. I speak no Persian and my knowledge of Arabic is rudimentary, and so our conversation was carried on through Abdu’l Baha’s grandson, acting as interpreter. At one point the latter was called away, but Abdu’l Baha continued the conversation and I found myself replying ! When the interpreter returned, my ability to do so ceased. To make sure that I had understood correctly, I asked for a translation of what Abdu’l Baha had been saying in his absence, and this confirmed the fact that I had been able to understand and to reply accurately in a language of which I was completely ignorant. (This curious experience was repeated some years later when visiting Abdu’l Baha in Paris.)
On returning the next day for another interview, I asked the Master to give me his blessing for the journey that lay ahead of me. This he did, adding casually that I should be returning to Marseilles on the following day on the same steamer from which I had so recently disembarked. I then explained to the interpreter that I had made other arrangements and that all my overland bookings had been made. He replied to the effect that if the Master said I had to return to Marseilles now, then that was what would happen.
I went back to my hotel in a state of considerable annoyance because I saw no good reason for changing my plans. During the night, a very restless one, I found myself in two minds as to what I should do. Next morning, when I went to say goodbye, and much to my own surprise, I told Abdu’l Baha that in fact I was leaving on the Sphinx for Marseilles later on that same day. He took this for granted and then requested me to carry out a commission for him on reaching Paris. He said that there I should meet a certain Persian student who was nearly blind, and he gave me £10.00 in gold to pay his fare to Alexandria. (Travelling was much cheaper in those days!) I was to tell this young man, whose name was Tammadun ul Molk, to lose no time and to present himself to his Master as soon as he arrived. I accepted this commission with very bad grace because it seemed a poor reason for upsetting all my previous plans. When I asked for the student’s address in Paris I was told that this was unknown but that a way would be found for bringing me into contact with him.
On reaching Paris I went to the Persian Consulate, only to find that Tammadun ul Molk was unknown to the officials there. I then visited the student’s quarter on the left bank of the Seine and spent the whole day there and elsewhere in a task that yielded no results whatever. When one’s mind is fearful or depressed, no interior guidance can be expected. This I have found to be true on many occasions throughout my life. In the present instance I gave up the search and set out for the Gare du Nord, where my luggage was already deposited in readiness for the return to England. En route I crossed the Seine by the Pont Royal. Happening to look across the bridge to the opposite pavement, I saw, among a crowd of pedestrians, a young man, evidently of Eastern origin, who was using a stick to tap his way along. I dodged through the traffic and accosted him. In reply to my question, he told me he was of Persian origin. I then enquired whether by chance he knew a certain Tammadun ul Molk. In surprise he replied “C’est moi”, adding that he had only arrived in Paris from Vienna that very morning. In a Vienna clinic three serious operations on his eyes had been undertaken, but the results were negative and he had been told by the surgeon that his sight could not be saved.
I then gave Abdu’l Baha’s message and the IO for his ticket to Alexandria. To watch the profound joy on his face was more than sufficient reward for all my previous disappointments, including the abandonment of my European tour. Tammadun duly reached Alexandria and visited his Master at once. Those present told me later that Abdu’l Baha poured a few drops of attar of roses into a glass of water. He then gave the youth his blessing whilst anointing his eyes with the water in question. Immediately full sight was restored, and when I met Tammadun some years later he was still enjoying perfect vision.
The further sequel was both significant and instructive. I crossed to England late that night and, on reaching my office the next day, discovered that I was only just in time to avert a very serious crisis in my affairs. The change in my plans had indeed turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
On many other occasions the prophetic insight of the Baha’i leader was made clear to me. As an instance of this, I recall that when visiting him at Haifa, just after the Armistice in November 1918, I spoke of the thankfulness we all must feel that the war “to end all wars” had been fought and won. He laid his hand upon my shoulder and told me that a still greater conflagration lay ahead of humanity. “It will be largely fought out in the air, on all continents, and on the sea. Victory will lie with no one. You, my son, will still be alive to witness this tragedy and to play your part. Beyond and following many tribulations, and through the beneficence of the Supreme One, the most great peace will dawn.” He always emphasised the need for unity through love to bring about friendly understanding between followers of every creed, irrespective of race, colour or social status. (Extract from The Silent Road, Neville Spearman Ltd., London.)
“Personal Recollections of Abdu’l Baha Abbas and the Baha’i Outlook” is an extract from Writing on the Ground by Wellesley Tudor Pole