December 10, 2020

A Sampler from Mahmud’s Diary – by Marzieh Gail

We tend to forget what a star 'Abdu'l-Baha was in the worldly sense, what a dazzling personality. We would be much mistaken if we thought of Him as an ivory-tower philosopher, a desert saint or One who spent His days only among the poor-although He loved them so much. The truth is that He Who was the perfect model for all Baha'is was splendid, sophisticated, in the good sense a man of the world; that He was equally at home in a palace or a hovel, with a beggar, scholar, or prince. He excluded no class from what Queen Marie of Rumania has referred to as the "wide embrace" - the Baha'i Faith - and none excluded Him. He would enter a city unknown, and His reception room would soon be overflowing. Weak and strong, known and unknown, they sought Him out, even Persian grandees who had persecuted His followers at home. Poets addressed odes to Him, artists painted Him, photographers took His picture. A number of word pictures exist, Browne's for example of 1890:

"Seldom have I seen one whose appearance impressed me more. A tall, strongly-built man holding himself straight as an arrow, with white turban and raiment, long black locks reaching almost to the shoulder, broad powerful forehead, indicating a strong intellect combined with an unswerving will, eyes keen as a hawk's, and strongly marked but pleasing features - such was my first impression of 'Abbas Effendi... Subsequent conversation with him served only to heighten the respect with which his appearance had from the first inspired me. 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, and the Muhammadans, could, I should think, scarcely be found even amongst the eloquent, ready, and subtle race to which he belongs. These qualities, combined with a bearing at once majestic and genial, made me cease to wonder at the influence and esteem which he enjoyed even beyond the circle of his father's followers. About the greatness of this man and his power no one who had seen him could entertain a doubt."

And Lady Blomfield says of Him as He was in 1912: "He wore a low-crowned taj, round which was folded a small, fine-linen turban of purest white; His hair and short beard were of that snowy whiteness which had once been black; His eyes were large, blue-gray with long, black lashes and well-marked eyebrows; His face was a beautiful oval with warm, ivory-coloured skin, a straight, finely-modelled nose, and firm, kind mouth ... His figure was of such perfect symmetry, and so full of dignity and grace, that the first impression was that of considerable height... inner glory shone in every glance, and word, and movement as He came with hands outstretched."

'Abdu'l-Baha did not return to His home until a year after He left America, December 5, 1912, exactly a year to the day. By then His three years of travelling in the West had, the Guardian writes, "called forth the last ounce of His ebbing strength." The travel record is one of incredible accomplishments and triumphs. Mirza Mahmud Zarqani, official chronicler of the journeys, was a member of the Master's suite and set down what he could of those dawn-to-midnight days, those incantatory words. Almost Boswellian in its immediacy, and including many a behind-the-scenes, informal glimpse, his Diary seems to bring us the direct presence of 'Abdu'l-Baha. The notes, from which the following paragraphs were taken, begin with the Master's voyage away from America across wintry seas to a final year of supreme effort in England and Scotland, and on the Continent far to the East. American Baha'is will rejoice someday to read the full text, where they are praised by 'Abdu'l-Baha more than once, and where He says His heart was happy among them because of all their activities for the Faith.

On the Celtic [ship] a woman came to 'Abdu'l-Baha and told Him that she was afraid of death. "Then," He said, "do something that will keep you from dying; that will instead, day by day make you more alive, and bring you everlasting life. According to the words of His Holiness Christ, those who enter the Kingdom of God will never die. Then enter the Divine Kingdom, and fear death no more."

They spoke of the temporarily quiet Atlantic, and He said: "One must ride in the Ship of God; for this life is a stormy sea, and all the people on earth - that is, over two billion souls - will drown in it before a hundred years have passed. All, except those who ride in the Ship of God. Those will be saved."

In London He gave them this fragment of dialogue between man and the Prophets:

"Always, man has confronted the Prophets with this: 'We were enjoying ourselves, and living according to our own opinions and desires. We ate; we slept; we sang; we danced. We had no fear of God, no hope of Heaven; we liked what we were doing, we had our own way. And then you came. You took away our pleasures. You told us now of the wrath of God, again of the fear of punishment and the hope of reward. You upset our good way of life.'

"The Prophets of God have always replied: 'You were content to stay in the animal world, We wanted to make you human beings. You were dark, We wanted you illumined; you were dead, We wanted you alive. You were earthly, We wanted you heavenly.'"

That same day, He spoke of love. "In the world of man," He said, "love is the brightness of the beauty of God. If there be no love, this is the animal's kingdom, for the distinguishing feature of man's world is love. Until love appears among men, there can be no full happiness and peace. Notice how, when a person sits with a friend, his heart leaps, how happy he becomes, but when he sits with an enemy, what a punishment! We must therefore foster brotherhood and universal love."

Asked how to treat a personal enemy He answered, "Leave the opposer to himself."

Asked, "What is Satan?" He replied: "The insistent self."

He would start the day by having prayers chanted, and Mahmmud writes that these prayers "lay sweet on the palate of the soul."

The Master said: "It has been revealed in the Teachings that work is worship, but this does not mean that worship and the prescribed mentionings of God should be abandoned, for such worship is a requirement set forth in the Book of God. Prayer makes the heart mindful, it spiritualizes the soul, it causes the spirit to exult, it gladdens the breast, till Divine love appears and a man leans trustingly on the Lord and bows in lowliness at the Threshold of Grandeur."

'Abdu'l-Baha praised the British more than once, but He was unhappy in one of the great cities on the Continent and said of its inhabitants: "I see the people... like bees or ants, coming and going by troops, surging past like waves, continually engrossed in their business. But if you should ask them, 'What are you doing? Why all this commotion?' you would find that they know nothing at all of their origin or their end, and that they look for no other good except eating and sleeping and assiduously pandering to their sensual desires."

After praising the scientific and technical accomplishments of this greatest of centuries He commented: "Now it would be well for them to bring about the means of travelling to other planets."

On being a Baha'i He said: "Up to now, to believe was to acknowledge, to make a confession of faith, but in this greatest of all Causes, believing means to have praiseworthy qualities and to perform praiseworthy acts."

Of duty He told them: "Man's duty is to persevere and struggle, and to hope for God's help. Not for him to sit idly by, proud and unconcerned. Since he cannot know the outcome of events, he must ever choose the way of righteousness, learning from the past, for the future."

Asked if, the fewer material things a man has, the more spiritual he becomes, the Master said: "Severance is not poverty but freedom of the heart ... When a man's heart is free, and on fire with the love of God, every material benefit, every physical advantage, will only serve to develop his spiritual perfections. "

Illustrating, He told them: "There were once two friends, one rich but free of heart, one poor but tied to the world. On a sudden the poor one suggested a journey and they set out, leaving everything behind. The poor one saw that his rich companion had really abandoned all his attachments, his possessions and affairs and was journeying along with no thought of return. He said, 'Now that we are on our way, wait a while, I want to go back, I have a donkey, I want to bring my donkey along.' The rich one said, 'You are no traveller. You cannot even give up your donkey. For you, I deserted all I had, my wealth and circumstance, and I came away, and I had no thought of ever turning back. I had everything, and you had just one thing, and you cannot wait to return for that one thing - that donkey.'''

On another day, the Master gave them a story out of His own life: "I was a child, nine years old. In the thick of those calamities, when the enemy attacked, they stoned our house and it had filled up with stones. We had nobody to help us. There was only my mother,[1] my sister, [2] and Aqa Mirza Muhammad- Quli [3]. To protect us, my mother took us away from the Shimiran Gate to the Sangilaj quarter, where in the back lanes she found a house. In that house she watched over us and forbade us ever to set foot on the street. But one day the problem of how to get food became so urgent that my mother said to me: 'Can you go to your aunt's house? [4] Tell her to find a few kráns [5] for us, no matter how.'

"Our aunt lived in the Takyih [6] of Haji Rajab-'Ali near the house of Mirza Hasan Kajdamagh. I went there. She tried everywhere and finally managed to collect five kráns, which she tied up in the corner of a handkerchief and gave me.

"On my way back through the Takyih, the son of Mirza Hasan recognized me. Immediately he called out, 'This one is a Babi!' and the boys ran after me. The house of Mulla Ja'far of Astarabad was not far away, and I reached it and went into the. entry. The son of Mulla Ja'far saw me but he did not put me out. Neither did he rout the boys.

"I stayed there till it was dark. When I left the place, the boys came after me again, shouting and throwing stones, following me until I got close to the store of Aqa Muhammad Sanduqdar. The children did not come on any farther after that. When I reached home, exhausted and terrified, I fell to the ground. My mother asked, 'What ails you?' I could not tell her. I simply fell down. My mother took the handkerchief with the money and put me to bed and I slept."

Later He added, "There was a time in Tihran when we had every means of comfort and luxury, and then in a single day they pillaged our house and robbed us of everything. Living became so hard for us that there came a day when my mother took a little flour and shook it into my hand instead of bread, and I ate it like that."

Continually He repeated the basic theme of His life, that nothing really matters except the Cause of God: "Look at the plains, look at the hills: they are defeated armies, they are hosts that fell in heaps and were levelled with the ground; they are the dust of high pavilions, and palace and hall are the hole of owls that feed upon the dead, the roost of carrion crows... All gain is loss, except in the great business of serving God."

[1] The sheltered and beautiful Navvab. then at most in her mid-twenties

[2] Bahiyyih Khanum, the Most Exalted Leaf, then seven

[3] An uncle of ‘Abdu’l-Baha

[4] A sister of Baha'u'llah

[5] One-tenth of a tuman

[6] A place where religious plays were performed.