Service: the Early Signs (‘Abdu’l-Bahá attending Bahá’u’lláh) – by Dana Paxson

img_2346Bahá’u’lláh increasingly relies upon ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, setting the stage for His Son’s unique role as the Center of His Covenant.

In this series of four presentations, our view is toward the human interplay that characterizes the life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá from His early life onward, and testifies to His fulfillment of His role as the Center of Bahá’u’lláh’s Covenant. An intimate glimpse of His childhood, offered to us in His own words and taking place not long before the Conference of Badasht in 1848, sets the stage:

“One day the great Siyyid Yaḥyá, surnamed Vaḥíd, was present there. As he sat without, Ṭáhirih listened to him from behind the veil. I was then a child, and was sitting on her lap. With eloquence and fervor, Vaḥíd was discoursing on the signs and verses that bore witness to the advent of the new Manifestation. She suddenly interrupted him and, raising her voice, vehemently declared:

‘O Yaḥyá! Let deeds, not words, testify to thy faith, if thou art a man of true learning. Cease idly repeating the traditions of the past, for the day of service, of steadfast action, is come. Now is the time to show forth the true signs of God, to rend asunder the veils of idle fancy, to promote the Word of God, and to sacrifice ourselves in His path. Let deeds, not words, be our adorning!”’[1]

‘Abdu’l-Bahá was at the time three years old, sitting on the lap of Táhirih, the woman who was to become an emblem of emancipation for women, and who was martyred shortly afterwards in Tihrán.

This child, destined to become the Center of Bahá’u’lláh’s Covenant, endured hardships that would crush ordinary souls under their burdens.

“He was only eight years old when – in the wake of a desperate and futile attempt on the life of Násiri’d-Dín Sháh by two half-crazed men – Bahá’u’lláh was imprisoned, and the Bábís were ferociously persecuted. Bahá’u’lláh’s house was pillaged, His lands and goods were confiscated, and His family reduced from opulence to penury. One day, while in Europe, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá recalled the sufferings of those bleak times:

‘Detachment does not imply lack of means; it is marked by the freedom of the heart. In Tihrán, we possessed everything at a nightfall, and on the morrow we were shorn of it all, to the extent that we had no food to eat. I was hungry, but there was no bread to be had. My mother poured some flour into the palm of my hand, and I ate that instead of bread. Yet, we were contented.’

“And again:

‘At that time of dire calamities and attacks mounted by the enemies I was a child of nine [reckoned by lunar years]. They threw so many stones into our house that the courtyard was crammed with them… Mother took us for safety to another quarter, and rented a house in a back alley where she kept us indoors and looked after us. But one day our means of subsistence were barely adequate, and mother told me to go to my aunt’s house, and ask her to find us a few qíráns [silver coins]… I went and my aunt did what she could for us. She tied a five-qírán piece in a handkerchief and gave it to me. On my way home someone recognize me and shouted: ‘Here is a Bábí’; whereupon the children in the street chased me. I found refuge in the entrance to a house… There I stayed until nightfall, and when I came out, I was once again pursued by the children who kept yelling at me and pelted me with stones… When I reached home I was exhausted. Mother wanted to know what had happened to me. I could not utter a word and collapsed.'”[2]

The horror, filth, and danger of Bahá’u’lláh’s imprisonment in the Síyáh-Chál during that time is well-documented and vividly described. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá Himself witnessed it:

“One day ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, anxious to see His Father, was taken to the dungeon. This is His account of that awesome visit:

‘They sent me with a black servant to His blessed presence in the prison. The warders indicated the cell, and the servant carried me in on his shoulders. I saw a dark, steep place. We entered a small, narrow doorway, and went down two steps, but beyond those one could see nothing. In the middle of the stairway, all of a sudden we heard His blessed voice:

‘Do not bring him in here’, and so they took me back. We sat outside, waiting for the prisoners to be led out. Suddenly they brought the Blessed Perfection out of the dungeon. He was chained to several others. What a chain! It was very heavy. The prisoners could only move it along with great difficulty. Sad and heart-rending it was.'” [3]

Even for us, as adults in this long remove from history, the story of Bahá’u’lláh’s bitter confinement in this terrible place evokes great sorrow. For His own Son, a sensitive child of eight, to witness it personally is for us unimaginable. Such events forge themselves in a youthful witness forever.

The workings of fate or destiny, the patterns of events, whatever term one uses for the interwoven streams of life, had brought ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to this point, and as He looked back much later on that moment, its antecedents, and its sequels, the grandeur and beauty of its awful weight emerged from His words as He spoke in Paris of His early life:

“Were it not for this illness I would not have stayed in Paris more than a month. There is a reason for this… It has been so from the early years of my life. The wisdom of what has happened to me has become apparent later. While I was a child in Tihrán, seven years of age, I contracted tuberculosis. There was no hope of recovery. Afterwards the wisdom of and the reason for this became apparent. Were it not for that illness I would have been in Mázindarán [the province of Bahá’u’lláh’s ancestral home]. But because of it I remained in Tihrán and was there when the Blessed Perfection was imprisoned. Thus I travelled to ‘Iráq in His company. And when the time came, although physicians had despaired of my recovery, I was suddenly cured…”[4]

The signs of the unique, ascendant station of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá continued to accumulate in His youth. After Bahá’u’lláh withdrew into seclusion in the mountains during the turmoils raised by the Covenant-Breakers of the time, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, by then in His teens in Baghdad, wrote at the request of ‘Alí Shawkat Pashá an astonishing treatise: ‘Commentary on the Islamic Tradition “I was a Hidden Treasure…” (Tafsír-i-Hadith-i-Kuntu Kanzan Makhfíyyan)’. The translator notes:

“It takes the form of a commentary on a number of key expressions out of the famous Islamic Tradition: “I was a Hidden Treasure and loved to be known. Therefore I created the Creation that I might be known.” This Tradition is one of that class of Traditions, called Hadíth-i Qudsí, wherein, although the Tradition itself is traced back; to Muhammad, it appears to be God Himself who is speaking in the words of the Tradition. The four words or phrases chosen by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá are: “Hidden Treasure”, “Love”, “Creation”, and “Knowledge”. We can surmise that ‘Alí Shawkat Pashá was a Sufi and an admirer of the writings of Ibn ‘Arabí, for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s commentary is replete with allusions to themes in the works of that famous Muslim mystic and philosopher.”[5]

This amazing commentary, with its insights, its power, and its eloquence, sets firmly in place a profound element of evidence for us as to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s station, wherein He was identified by Bahá’u’lláh Himself, upon Bahá’u’lláh’s return from seclusion, as the “Mystery of God”. In Shoghi Effendi’s words, referring to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá:

“He alone had been accorded the privilege of being called “the Master,” an honor from which His Father had strictly excluded all His other sons. Upon Him that loving and unerring Father had chosen to confer the unique title of “Sirru’lláh” (the Mystery of God), a designation so appropriate to One Who, though essentially human and holding a station radically and fundamentally different from that occupied by Bahá’u’lláh and His Forerunner, could still claim to be the perfect Exemplar of His Faith, to be endowed with super-human knowledge, and to be regarded as the stainless mirror reflecting His light. To Him…”[6]

Finally, to frame ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s utterly-selfless service to Bahá’u’lláh during the lifetime of the Blessed Beauty, we see this touching observation by Bahá’u’lláh Himself:

“In Adrianople We met many people, but in the Most Great Prison, We seldom receive visitors who are not believers. The burden of all these affairs has fallen upon the shoulders of the Master. To provide Us with some peace and comfort, He has made Himself Our shield, and thus He sees to Our affairs both with the government and the people. He first prepared for Us the house at Mazra’ih, and then He procured this Mansion in Bahjí. He is so devoted to His services and so intensely occupied that sometimes weeks pass by and He cannot come here to visit Us. While We consort with the friends and reveal Tablets, He is immersed in the toils and troubles of the world.”[7]

Here one sees the Center of Bahá’u’lláh’s Covenant hard at work, deep in the vital and everyday affairs of the Cause on behalf of the living Manifestation of God. Next we will encounter the great crisis of transition: the Ascension of Bahá’u’lláh and the flow of events released by it.

 

[1] Memorials of the Faithful
[2] Unrestrained as the Wind: A Life Dedicated to Bahá’u’lláh. Also, Balyuzi, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá 9—12
[3] Ibid
[4] ‘Abdu’l-Baha, The Centre of the Covenant of Baha’u’llah by H. M. Balyuzi
[5] Commentary on the Islamic Tradition “I Was a Hidden Treasure…” by Abdu’l-Bahá
translated by Moojan Momen.
published in Bahá’í Studies Bulletin, 3:4, pages 4-35. 1995-12
originally written as “Tafsír-i-Hadith-i-Kuntu Kanzan Makhfíyyan”.
[6] Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, pp. 241-245
[7] Stories from The Delight of Hearts: The Memoirs of Hájí Mírzá Haydar-’Alí, By Abyʼl-Qásim Faizí p. 106

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