Who was `Abdu'l-Bahá, and why did He come to the West?

Saturday, March 31, 2012

March 31, 1912 Change and transformation

Sunday.  The salon on board the ship is converted into a church. This goes along with one of `Abdu'l-Bahá's themes for the day--how everything is subject to change and transformation.  Other journeys are referenced--the Master remembers His frostbitten toes because of the severe cold, between Tihran and Baghdad and how His toes are still affected by cold weather.  We realize He is not young and not in the best of health; but still, He makes the journey.  For love!  For progress!  For human history!  For the sake of Bahá'u'lláh!  So much is to come. . . . 
For now, there is companionship on the ocean, the sea waves lapping the sides of the ship as it steadily makes its way to North America. . . . 

Mahmúd writes: Sunday, March 31, 1912 [aboard the Cedric]
Phoebe Hearst
The Master visited the cabins of His companions and inquired about each person's health. He then took tea in His cabin. When He came out, the American friends remarked that today was Sunday and that every Sunday morning the salon was converted into a church for prayers. He replied, `You should also go and join in.' Therefore the friends attended the prayer services. Afterwards `Abdu'l-Bahá spoke to us about Mrs [Phoebe] Hearst and said that she had contributed £500 to repair the road to the Shrine of the Báb. `Abdu'l-Bahá, in turn, had sent her a very valuable ring that He had been able to purchase for a modest price. However, as she was very wealthy, the enemies of the Cause [the Covenant-Breakers] imagined that she had helped the Cause, although, as a matter of fact, she had received much more than she gave.
Today `Abdu'l-Bahá took His meal in His cabin. After a taking little rest, He invited the American friends to His cabin and spoke to them about His journey from Tihrán to Baghdád made during the severe winter without proper accommodation or clothing. `There was so much snow and it was so cold', He said, `that my feet were frostbitten. To this day my toes are affected by cold weather.' Later He gave an account of Mírzá Yahyá and his followers and of the complaints they made to Edward G. Browne:
They tampered with the contents of the history of Hájí Mírzá Jání by removing some of its passages and inserting others. They sent it to the libraries of London and Paris and through such falsehood induced him [Browne] to translate and publish the document. In order to achieve his own selfish desires, he had it printed.
In the afternoon `Abdu'l-Bahá invited all the believers to His cabin for tea. He then sent a cable to Ramleh in Alexandria informing them of His good health and inquiring after the well-being of the Greatest Holy Leaf [Bahíyyih Khánum]. At the dinner table in the evening `Abdu'l-Bahá's conversation centered around the point that every created thing is subject to change. `All created things', He said, `are subject to change and transformation. Every youth will grow old and every sapling will become an old tree and everything old will decay and perish.' Similarly, He said, each one of the religions of the world has at one time been the cause of progress but each has become like an old tree, devoid of truth. The people of this age hope that these trees will again bear flowers and fruits but this is impossible. Thus, for instance, the Hindu and Buddhist expect to regain the progress of the times of Brahma and Buddha.

We live at the beginning of a season of newness--and we need the Master's guiding hand to remind us of how to appreciate this and share it with others.  How lucky we are to have His example and guidance!  The world awakens slowly.  But surely its pulse is quickened as He makes His way 
across the Atlantic for unknown lands. 

Friday, March 30, 2012

March 30, 1912 Attracting all eyes . . .

Bittersweet, the journey today. Three souls leaving--one, the young Shoghi Effendi.  We can feel the heaviness of their sorrow.  And the Master's sense of persecution. . . . And the connection to Christ and to history.  Is part of the wisdom related to sacrifice and testing? 

The Woodcocks and the Austins, along with Louisa Mathew, are now among the travelers--and the East-West bonding is palpable and attractive.  Leaving Naples, the next stop will be New York!  Oh, what joy! 

Mahmúd writes:  Saturday, March 30, 1912   [aboard the Cedric]
`Abdu'l-Bahá bestowed upon those three souls His utmost kindness and blessings and bade them farewell. With great sadness and dejection they left the ship. The Master's heart was broken and all of the companions were very sad. `Abdu'l-Bahá said, `There is a wisdom in this matter which will become known later.' Much of His time that day was spent on this issue until the steamer left Naples for New York in the afternoon.
`Abdu'l-Bahá's companions were now three Persians -- Siyyid Asadu'lláh-i-Qumí, Dr Faríd and myself -- and the six Americans -- Mr and Mrs Woodcock, Miss Woodcock, Mr and Mrs Austin and Miss Mathew, who with great joy remained in the presence of their beloved Lord. We were all of us now in first class near `Abdu'l-Bahá.
In the afternoon the Master invited us to His cabin for tea. He later took His dinner in the main salon and said, `I have come to the table tonight out of regard for you and have even taken a hearty meal.' Then He remarked:
These Italians took us for Turks. They sent a report to this effect and stopped three of our party from proceeding. One was a secretary, the other a cook. If they had stopped only these two it would have mattered little. But why should they treat that tender youth Shoghi Effendi so harshly? They have treated us with injustice; nevertheless I have always helped and am still helping them, whether at Alexandria or at Haifa. It has invariably happened that the friends of God have been afflicted. How sorely the disciples of Christ were persecuted on the ship and with what great affliction they were carried to Rome.
That evening the Master and His company of friends and believers presented a very unusual and beautiful sight, the intermingling of the Eastern and Western friends attracting all eyes.
I do enjoy the phrasing Mahmúd uses--or perhaps it is the beauty of translation.  
We can sense the bonding of the group as it collectively laments the sacrifices made and rejoices at the voyage to come! 

Having always associated yellow roses with the Master, I planted a yellow rose bush in His honor some weeks ago, and this morning the top bud opened!  It was my first sight upon awakening!  So, on this, the day He actually sets sail for America, we have a fragrant blossom symbolizing the journey! 

Thursday, March 29, 2012

March 29, 1912 Naples

Shoghi Effendi, right
Louisa Mathew, right
Can you imagine visiting 'Abdu'l-Bahá on the ship, in Naples?  He had visitors from the U.S., Canada, and England, who would then sail with Him. Louisa Mathew (who had met Him in Egypt and perhaps in Akka in 1908) was one of these!  She had no idea then that He would suggest she marry an African-American lawyer she had also met in Egypt. . . .

It is so very sad that the 14-year-old Shoghi Effendi could not go to N. America--and indeed, he was never to see these shores. I think it was one of the deep regrets of his life, and undoubtedly he missed his grandfather greatly during His travels.  

Mahmúd writes:  Friday, March 29, 1912 [aboard the Cedric]
Some American Bahá'ís who were waiting for the steamer boarded the ship to see `Abdu'l-Bahá. Among them were Mr and Mrs [Percy] Woodcock and their daughter from Canada, Mr and Mrs Austin from Denver, Colorado, and Miss [Louisa] Mathew, a friend from London, who made the rest of the journey with them to New York.
It became known that a group of physicians from Naples was to board the ship to examine the eyes of the passengers. The ship's doctor had already given his opinion about the infection of Áqá Khusraw's eyes. When these physicians examined the passengers' eyes they said that the eyes of Shoghi Effendi and Mírzá Munír-i-Zayn were also infected and that they must leave the ship. The efforts of `Abdu'l-Bahá, His companions and the American friends were of no avail and apparently were not in accord with God's mysterious will and plan. The physicians insisted that even if these friends continued their journey to New York, they would not be allowed to disembark and would have to return. Therefore `Abdu'l-Bahá asked the three to obey.


I really don't know anything about Mr. and Mrs. Woodcock and their daughter from Canada, or Mr. and Mrs. Austin from Denver.  Did they go to Naples specifically to travel with the Master?  Wouldn't you have loved to have been there with them? 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

March 28, 1912 Arrival in Naples

Naples harbor, between 1900–1905
Naples!  Of course we know what is coming--and we dread seeing Shoghi Effendi and other companions taken off the ship for medical reasons.  But the thought of 'Abdu'l-Bahá in Italy is delightful! 

The war--and the possible confusion of our brave Persians with Turks--is sad however; 'Abdu'l-Bahá must have yearned to get off of the ship and look around.  In a larger sense, He must have grieved at the prejudice and hatred between Italians and Turks; perhaps this gave Him further reflection on offering ideas concerning peace to N. America. . . . 

Mahmúd writes:  Thursday morning, March 28, 1912  [aboard the Cedric]
Naples, one of Italy's most important cities, appeared on the horizon and was seen by `Abdu'l-Bahá. The ship docked. At this time Italy and Turkey were at war; the hatred between them was so intense that if the enemy were observed in one country, he would be harmed and abused by its inhabitants without question. Because of this, the friends urged the Master and His companions not to disembark at Naples because their Eastern attire and Turkish fezes would incite the hatred of the local people. Thus `Abdu'l-Bahá did not leave the ship at Naples but instead looked at the city, its gardens and buildings from the deck of the ship. He spoke much that day about the hardworking laborers and workers' rights, about how hard they work and how desperate and needy their lives are:
What hardship these coal miners have to suffer, how poor and needy they are! It is necessary for the directors of companies and the owners of factories to allot a certain share, however small it may be, to their laborers so that their condition may be improved and they may be deterred from striking.


From the microcosm of these laborers to the macrocosm of humankind, 
the Master wishes to improve our condition.  How laudable and humane!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

March 27, 1912 Traversing the world of the kingdom . . .

Ah! an eventful day of teaching aboard the Cedric, with a poster attracting people to the first class main auditorium to hear 'Abdu'l-Bahá.  Mahmúd says 500 heard Him speak--and that may well be true--but I wonder if Mahmúd may exaggerate his numbers, here and there.  We know he doesn't always get his dates quite right--but then some of the diary is written in retrospect, based on notes that he took. In any event, I feel quite grateful for his presentation of the details he offers. 
Mahmúd writes:  The following morning `Abdu'l-Bahá visited the cabins of His companions while some were still asleep. He stopped at each cabin for a few minutes to inquire about its occupant's health and condition, bestowing upon each His love and affection. When we were all gathered at the table in the dining room on the upper deck, `Abdu'l-Bahá directed Shoghi Effendi to chant a prayer. During the prayer, many passengers became interested in the gathering and watched `Abdu'l-Bahá as He sat with His companions. They listened to the chanting of prayers with complete concentration, respect and courtesy. Observing this scene and the manner in which `Abdu'l-Bahá would rise, sit and speak, they became interested and all their attention was directed towards the majesty and beauty of the Center of the Covenant.
At lunchtime the Master came to the table and said, `Your cabins below are not good, you must move up.' We explained that although there were better cabins on the second deck, because we were from the East, they had not given them to us. `They treat us as poorly as they can because they do not believe in God or in salvation.' `Abdu'l-Bahá replied: `If some of them appear to behave with trustworthiness and honesty, it is merely for personal esteem, in order to be held in favorable regard, and for name and fame, rather than for the sake of promoting humane values, righteousness, the fear of God and love of truth.'
The Russian Consul, who was on the ship, came into `Abdu'l-Bahá's presence while He was speaking about Sufism. . . .  `Abdu'l-Bahá gave a description of Sufism, explaining that the Sufis believe the world of existence to be like the sea and all creation the waves of that sea. When the Russian Consul asked `Abdu'l-Bahá about the soul, He gave a description of its nature and progress, explaining that the abstract is not comprehended by the senses and that the lesser kingdoms can never understand the higher ones. `Abdu'l-Bahá then described the signs and indications of the existence of the soul. The Consul was quite fascinated. As he was traveling only as far as Naples, he said his farewells with extreme courtesy and sincerity.
An American came to see the Master in the late afternoon and spoke to Him about his travels around the world. `Abdu'l-Bahá told him, `You have traveled in this world; I hope you will now traverse the world of the Kingdom and become a wayfarer in the realms of the spirit.' The American asked whether the Bahá'í Faith accepted the Bible. `Abdu'l-Bahá replied:
This Cause acknowledges the truth of all the Books and all the Manifestations of God. The heavenly teachings are composed of two kinds of commandments. One kind is concerned with spiritual verities, with the perfections and virtues of the world of humanity. These commandments never change or alter. Each of the Books and the Prophets was the promulgator of these principles upon which all the religions are based, hence the foundation of all the divine religions is one. The second category of commandments is concerned with material principles and social issues. These are altered according to the exigencies of the age. For example, at the time of Christ the social laws of the Torah were changed.
The American then asked about reincarnation. `Abdu'l-Bahá answered:
It is not as people have understood. What is intended is the return of pre-existent attributes and perfections in new forms. Moreover, in all realms of existence the spirits are in a state of development; for instance, the mineral spirit ascends and progresses to the vegetable kingdom, and the vegetable spirit to the animal kingdom, and the animal spirit to the human kingdom. In like manner, the human spirit ascends into the divine worlds and the exalted realms.
On another occasion this same person came to `Abdu'l-Bahá and brought with him some Chinese and Japanese idol figurines to show Him. The Master remarked:
What a great difference exists between men. One person degrades himself to such a degree that he idolizes and worships stones, lifeless images, motionless effigies, notwithstanding that God has given him understanding and favored him with the honored robe of humanity! Another person reaches such a pinnacle of perfection that he becomes a sign of God and an educator of the world of humanity! Consider what a great distance there is between the one and the other. Although the object of both Buddha and Krishna was the one God and they proclaimed the unity of God, yet now their followers cling to and believe in idols and images.
During `Abdu'l-Bahá's conversation many others joined us and were moved by His words. Several visitors asked for permission to arrange a large meeting where He could speak. They prepared a poster and placed it on the main bulletin board of the ship: `His Honor, `Abbás Effendi, will speak on the subject of the Bahá'í Faith in the first class main auditorium.' This announcement attracted many passengers, men and women alike.
After dinner, `Abdu'l-Bahá gave a comprehensive talk to an audience of well over five hundred people. First He described the potential of the human race and the high station and virtues of the human kingdom. `In spite of these potentialities,' `Abdu'l-Bahá said, `humanity has not attained maturity, and human beings, depriving themselves of these divine favors, seek glory in war and bloodshed.'
`Abdu'l-Bahá then spoke about the new Manifestation of God, the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh and His spiritual influence on the world. After His talk everyone was happy. Many shook the Master's hand, all, with the exception of a few priests and prejudiced Italians, delighted to be in His presence. From then on, more and more people came to see `Abdu'l-Bahá in both public and private gatherings and His talks were translated sentence by sentence.
In the afternoon the ship approached the Strait of Messina and volcanoes could be seen in the distance. `Abdu'l-Bahá remarked:
The real volcanoes which lay waste the cities and towns are the battleships which are aptly named in Arabic `Mudammir', that is, `destroyer'. Without doubt these are the destroyers of the edifice of humanity. When will the time come that these battleships will be diverted from performing such ruinous tasks and become vessels for the transportation of people?
When the city of Messina appeared on the horizon, nestling in the bosom of the mountain, illuminated by lights, that piece of earth appeared to be a heaven with stars shining brightly. It was a majestic sight, the more so because it was being observed and enjoyed by `Abdu'l-Bahá.

Don't you love this last sentence? Mahmúd shows his sensitivity to what the Master is observing, 
not just his own observations. Perhaps we can cultivate this ability, too! 
"Look at Me, Follow Me," See as I see?

Monday, March 26, 2012

March 26, 1912 Glad Tidings!

Day 2 aboard the Cedric brought many things: a prayer chanted by the young Shoghi Effendi; a bath for 'Abdu'l-Bahá, a conversation with a Unitarian woman and the poetic "Glad Tidings" response by the Master.  One feels the anticipation of the travelers; the reference to Kheiralla suggests they were thinking about what they would find in America as a result of that man's heedlessness. 

'Abdu'l-Bahá describes the table in the dining room where they sat as a "divine table" and adds: "Praise be to God that divine confirmations are with us."  This theme is repeated all during the journey--confirmations abound!  On this second day, a woman from NY is drawn to Him (the seeds are already being scattered), and He mentions confirmations.   I think that even from our vantage point, it is hard to fully grasp the blessings of God realized through this journey and how they were "fated" though many unpredictable things are about to unfold.  

Mahmúd writes:  On the morning of March 26 when I was close by His cabin, `Abdu'l-Bahá came out and said: `Last night I slept comfortably. For a long time I could not sleep well on account of the ache in my bones but now it is gone altogether.' I mentioned that the humidity in Port Alexandria was very high and that it must not have been good for His health. `Yes,' He said, `the climate here is better because at sea the humidity ascends and thus is not harmful, whereas there is more humidity in coastal regions and this is harmful to health. Besides, an electro-magnetic force is produced by the moving and surging of the water which is very beneficial to health.' Then He added, `Despite the sea and weather being a bit rough, the rolling of the ship is slight owing to its huge size. Vibration is caused by its being powered by steam and one feels the vibration of the engine more than the movement of the ship.'
When we had all gathered the Master asked Shoghi Effendi to chant a prayer. After the prayer, He went to the dining room for morning tea. He commented, `This is a divine table. Outwardly it is well adorned. Násiri'd-Dín Sháh did not have such a table. Praise be to God that divine confirmations are with us. Those who were hated by the nations of the world are now seated at such a table. One must be grateful.'
One of the servants asked why man is not thankful when in comfort. `Abdu'l-Bahá replied, `It is due to negligence. Otherwise one must be aware and thankful when immersed in the sea of bounties.' Then He said, `I have not had a good bath for several months.' The ship's attendant was then asked to prepare a warm fresh water bath for Him. Afterwards, He said, `I am much better now. For a long time I have not had leisure to take a real bath.'
When Mírzá Munír stated that one of the Arab travelers had spoken to him about Mírzá Kheiralla's arrogance and heedlessness, `Abdu'l-Bahá replied:
The poor man has become nameless and debased both in this world and in the Kingdom. What a high honor he had! But as he did not appreciate the fact, it all came to naught. He wished to be made the leader of America and wrote plainly to me to this effect. One of the answers I gave him was, `Cast aside all mention of the ruler and the ruled, the governor and the governed.'
Siyyid Asadu'lláh remarked that `leadership must be wielded with obedience to the Cause of God'. `Abdu'l-Bahá said: `If a man considers himself humble and lowly in the Cause of God, he becomes glorified in all eyes. On the other hand, the moment he aspires to personal greatness, he falls into disgrace and oblivion.'
At this point a refined lady approached `Abdu'l-Bahá and with the aid of an interpreter said that she lived in New York City and had heard something about the Bahá'í teachings. `I knew you were in Egypt,' she said, `and when from a distance I saw your august personage on this ship, it occurred to me that you might be `Abdu'l-Bahá.' `Abdu'l-Bahá said, `The heart, when pure and free, becomes inspired. It is evident from your having been transformed in such a short time that there is a spiritual link between pure hearts.' The woman told the Master that she was a Unitarian and requested Him to send a message through her to the Unitarian congregation. `Abdu'l-Bahá replied:
The most important of all intentions is to spread the love of God, to establish harmony and oneness among the people. This is what distinguishes man from animals. Hence, tell your community in America:
Glad tidings, glad tidings,
the Sun of love has dawned.
Glad tidings, glad tidings,
the table of fellowship is spread.
Glad tidings, glad tidings,
the standard of the Kingdom is hoisted.
Glad tidings, glad tidings,
the divine springtime has appeared.
Glad tidings, glad tidings,
the clouds of mercy have rained.
Glad tidings, glad tidings,
the trees of the garden of humanity have become green and verdant.
Glad tidings, glad tidings,
the Herald of the Kingdom has raised His voice.
The woman was so impressed and moved that she came into His presence every day and shared with many passengers the teachings and principles of the Bahá'í Faith.
Lunch was usually served at 1:00 p.m. At the table, `Abdu'l-Bahá showered His love and blessings on His companions. In the afternoon, the same lady again entered His presence and heard from Him a detailed explanation of the extraordinary forces which govern the material world, although the human kingdom, He explained, is above the laws of nature.
Afternoon tea was served in `Abdu'l-Bahá's cabin but owing to the extreme motion of the ship, He had no appetite.


Mahmúd will become a close companion on this journey as we study his accounts! 

Sunday, March 25, 2012

March 25, 1912: A burst of steam and great fanfare!

S.S. Cedric
ah! The Journey Begins!  And for these next 18 days on board ship and then the 239 days in America, I will trace the Master's journey!  So picture it, dear friends: He is leaving, from Egypt, on the S.S. Cedric.  Not the Titanic.  Mahmúd is one of the six companions--thank goodness he came along!  

Mahmúd writes: `Abdu'l-Bahá's departure from Ramleh, Alexandria
When `Abdu'l-Bahá was saying farewell amid the tears, lamentations and sadness of the friends and members of the Holy Family who watched their beloved's departure, one of `Abdu'l-Bahá's daughters, Rúhá Khánum, was seriously ill. It was evident that this deeply affected the Master. It was in these circumstances that `Abdu'l-Bahá left Alexandria on the morning of Monday, March 25, 1912. Although He had already bidden the friends farewell and had embraced most of them, many accompanied Him to the ship, expressing their sadness and anguish at their impending separation from Him. After visiting, walking about the ship and receiving His cabin assignment, `Abdu'l-Bahá went to the main hall where He bestowed His love, affection and assurance on each of the friends. After an hour, the friends left the ship in tears. Then the S. S. Cedric, an Italian liner from the White Star Line, set sail, honored to be the means of transporting the Most Holy Being and becoming the focus of the envy of the whole earth.
The ship left the port of Alexandria with a burst of steam and great fanfare. `Abdu'l-Bahá's companions numbered six: Shoghi Effendi, Siyyid Asadu'lláh-i-Qumí, Dr Amínu'lláh Faríd, Mírzá Munír-i-Zayn, ÁqáKhusraw and this servant, Mahmúd-i-Zarqání. After the ship left, `Abdu'l-Bahá went to the first class dining room and gave permission to His companions to have lunch with Him. Although our cabins were in second class, arrangements had been made for us to dine in the first class dining room with Him. `Abdu'l-Bahá remarked at lunch:
The doctor of this ship is an Italian and, as Italians are at war with the Turks, the doctor, imagining us to be Turks and wanting to go to war with us, says that Khusraw's eyes are affected with a disease which will make him unfit to land in America. He wished to examine the eyes of all, but Dr Faríd prevented him.
Then He told Khusraw not to worry, that He would try to intercede on his behalf and not allow them to prevent his travel. He said, `Don't worry; to the extent possible I will not allow you to be sent back. We are ready to give our lives for one another.' `Abdu'l-Bahá then went to His cabin in the upper deck and rested for awhile. . . . 
This evening `Abdu'l-Bahá did not dine in the main hall but instead the waiter brought His dinner to the cabin. After eating He went to the lounge, rested on a comfortable couch for a short time and then returned to His cabin to sleep.
And so this Luminous Journey begins!  As we celebrate it, let us revel in being "virtual" companions--communing with the Master across time, across space. 

Friday, March 2, 2012

Articles in Persian

A new friend, Soheila Vadati, has written two beautiful articles in Persian about the journey of Abdu'l-Baha in America.  For the latest, see http://www.akhbar-rooz.com/article.jsp?essayId=44062 . Both are listed under "Resources" to the right.

Soheila is not a Baha'i but is keenly interested in the impact of 'Abdu'l-Bahá on America--especially in a social sense.  She interviewed me in Berkeley; Mansour Taeed connected us.  I really learned something from Soheila about how 'Abdu'l-Bahá is (or can be) a source of pride for Iranians.

Soheila is a fair-minded scholar and proponent for Iranian cultural identity.  If you can read Persian, enjoy the articles; if not, you can still look over them and marvel.  The photos are great!