One in a series of four founders and shapers of a Muslim sect known as the Baha'is, Persian-born religious leader Abdul-Baha (1844-1921) perpetuated the teachings of his father, the Baha'u'llah, by becoming the community's third religious leader. Essential to Abdul-Baha's work as superintendent of the faith was the dissemination of the Baha'i message of world peace, justice, racial and gender equality, and the unity of all people. He composed a history of Baha'ism and spread its tenets throughout the Middle East, India, Burma, western Europe, the Americas, South Africa, and the Pacific rim.
Named Abbas Effendi in infancy, Abdul-Baha was marked from the beginning for a religious career. He was born on May 23, 1844, in Tehran, Persia (now Iran) on the day that Mirza Ali Muhammed of Shiraz, Persia, the self-proclaimed Bab (The Gate) and successor to Muhammed, launched the Baha'i faith. As the eldest son of Navvab and Mirza Husayn Ali, Abdul-Baha was prepared for leadership. He received a suitable education and encouragement to advance Baha'ism and to carry its beliefs to people beyond the Middle East.
After the Bab's execution in 1850 and the murder of some 20,000 followers, Abdul-Baha, then six years old, witnessed social instability and the persecution of his father and other religious leaders by Shi'ite Muslims. A mob over-ran and pillaged the family home, forcing them into poverty. He cringed to see his father bound hand, foot, and neck in irons and imprisoned in Tehran's infamous Black Hole. During Baha'u'llah's absence, Abdul-Baha recognized himself as the messiah prophesied in the Bab's covenant book. To prepare himself for a religious life, Abdul-Baha meditated daily, memorized the Bab's writings, and visited the village mosque to discuss theology with experts.
Exile in Baghdad
After the liberation of the Baha'u'llah, nine-year-old Abdul-Baha accompanied his father and seventy other devout Baha'ists into exile in Baghdad, Arabia, where they initiated a thriving Babi community. As he matured and grew strong, he became his father's aide and protector against the threats of detractors and the demands of visitors and pilgrims. After the sect's forced removal to Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), the boy's support of the family left the father free to develop a comprehensive teaching based on social and moral ethics. Tall, erect, and blessed with a sharp profile, piercing eyes, and shoulder-length black hair, Abdul-Baha dressed simply in robe and white turban, yet made a memorable impression on others. According to Edward Granville Browne, an English physician and orientalist from Gloucestershire: "One more eloquent of speech, more ready of argument, more apt of illustration, more intimately acquainted with the sacred books of the Jews, the Christians, the Muhammadans, could, I should think, scarcely be found."
Began a Holy Life
At the age of 22, Abdul-Baha formally proclaimed himself the third religious leader of the Baha'is as well as the slave of Baha, interpreter of divine revelation, and the promised successor described in the Bab's covenant. To demonstrate the correct lifestyle of his sect, Abdul-Baha limited his diet to two meals per day and shared his food and belongings with the needy. In 1867, political shifts forced him and other Baha'is out of the Middle East. He left Constantinople and traveled northwest to Adrianople (modern Edirne, Turkey).
As modern Europe destabilized power bases along the eastern Mediterranean, the Ottoman Turks imprisoned Abdul-Baha and his holy band at Acca (now Akko, Israel) in Ottoman Syria on the northern horn of the Bay of Haifa. To curtail the expansion of Baha'ism, his captors restricted inmate communication with the outside world and spied on them in fear of the movement's political intent. The prisoners—men, women, and children—suffered malaria, typhoid and dysentery. Lacking medicines, Abdul-Baha nursed the sick with broth before he too fell ill with dysentery, which kept him from comforting his followers for a month.
Spokesman for Baha'i
Abdul-Baha expanded his ministry from one-on-one teaching and counseling to administering religious affairs and formulating the sect's philosophy. In 1886, he compiled the first history of the Baha'i movement, later published with his collected papers. After the Baha'u'llah's death in May 1892, just as the Bab planned, the succession passed to Abdul-Baha. As characterized by his biographer, Isabel Fraser Chamberlain, author of Abdul Baha on Baha'i Philosophy, he continued the work of Baha'i's first two patriarchs by reviving his father's teachings, exemplifying divine law, and establishing a new kingdom on earth. A half-brother, Mirza Mohammad Ali, and other kin stirred a revolt against Abdul-Baha. To justify his ouster, they accused him of overreaching the Bab's covenant and Baha'u'llah's intent for him.
Prison and Release
In 1904 and 1907, as power struggles shook the established order in the eastern Mediterranean, government commissioners grew suspicious of organized groups and inquired into the source and nature of Abdul-Baha's influence. Hostile agents jailed him at a Turkish prison, where he continued to receive representatives of all faiths and races. During his imprisonment, he married Munirih Khanum, mother of their four daughters. Fluent in Persian, Arabic, and Turkish, he carried on an enormous correspondence of some 27,000 letters to philosophers, religious leaders, and pilgrims from all parts of the globe. Despite his personal plight and the danger to his family, he spread faith, cheer, and hope to the hopeless.
Risking execution by the sultan, Abdul-Baha refused to plead his innocence before a corrupt investigating committee or to attempt escape by an Italian ship that his sympathizers arranged for him in the harbor. In September 1908, the Turkish revolution resulted in the overthrow of the Ottoman Empire and the freeing of political and religious prisoners. Immediately, Abdul-Baha left his cell and made a formal gesture to the demoralized Baha'is. He finished building the shrine of the Bab above Haifa on Mount Carmel and buried the remains of the founder in hallowed ground.
A Mission to the World
At the newly established Baha'i headquarters in Acre, Palestine, Abdul-Baha continued composing sacred writings, now collected in two compendia, Baha'i Scriptures and Baha'i World Faith. When his daughters matured, they interpreted and transcribed his writings to free him for more important community missions to the oppressed, sick, and poor. As sect leader, he promoted the unity of world religions and the universalism of Baha'i. He summarized ten principles of the faith: (1) the independent search for truth; (2) the unity of all people; (3) the harmony of religion and science; (4) the equality of female and male; (5) the compulsory education for all; (6) the establishment of one global language; (7) the creation of a world court; (8) harmonious relations of all people in work and love; (9) the condemnation of prejudice; and (10) the abolition of poverty and extreme wealth.
Resettled in Alexandria, Egypt, Abdul-Baha received all comers to his center and, in August 1911, visited France and England. He dispatched reformers to the United States, which he toured in April 1912. In Wilmette, Illinois, he dedicated the site of a Baha'i temple, the first such structure in the Western Hemisphere. He next championed peace, women's rights, racial equality, and social justice in Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria, and Hungary.
A Life Dedicated to Peace
In the last years of his service to Baha'i, Abdul-Baha returned to Palestine and resumed control of his headquarters at Haifa. During World War I, he nurtured the sick and helped to avert famine by stockpiling adequate stores of wheat. Because travel was hampered by warships in sea lanes, he remained at his office to outline future goals for the Baha'i community in Tablets of the Divine Plan Revealed by Abdul-Baha to the North American Baha'is. After the British army liberated Palestine, in April 1920, an agent of the King of England knighted him for promoting peace in the Middle East.
Still visiting the aged and struggling underclass to the last, Abdul-Baha died peacefully in his sleep on November 28, 1921. Amid a throng of mourners, his body was interred in the northern rooms of the Bab's tomb on Mount Carmel. The mission begun by the Bab and the Baha'u'llah passed from Abdul-Baha to his eldest grandson, Shoghi Effendi Rabbani, the next guardian of the Baha'i faith. By 1995, with five million members in 232 countries, Baha'i had become the world's second most widely spread religion.
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