Sunday, 8 June 2008

Ahang's Witnesses: Volume 3, part 1

A few weeks ago, I decided I would begin reading in sequence the documents in the Witnesses to Babi and Baha'i History series, which Ahang Rabbani is in the process of putting up on his website at Ahang has researched and found important memoirs of people who witnessed aspects of Babi/Baha'i history and translated and annotated them. There are some 15 volumes in the series.

There's no understating the importance of the series. Firstly, Ahang is one of the Baha'i world's leading historians, and the series constitutes Ahang's lifelong work. His annotations help readers to understand the people mentioned, and the context for comments made, in the text. Secondly, the series is a way that Baha'is can get a really good feel for how things were back in the early days when the Bab, Baha'u'llah and Abdu'l-Baha were alive. My understanding of the general circumstances of their lives has been shaped a great deal by what I have read so far. For example, we know that soon after Baha'u'llah's death, Abdu'l-Baha's older brother, Mirza Muhammad-Ali, turned against him and made his life a misery. But the details of what he actually did and the impact it had on Abdu'l-Baha personally and on the Baha'i community is little known. The Guardian asked the Persian believers to write down their memoirs so that Baha'i history could be kept for future generations. He believed it was very important that we read these accounts so that we could get a better understanding of our religious history. For this reason, Ahang has translated, annotated and published these documents. Now, our job is to make use of them and take in what they have to offer. I'd love to see Baha'is downloading, reading and discussing them so that they can benefit from them and gain a more personal relationship with the central figures. To this end, I have decided to read the documents and put some highlights up on my blog.

When I went to Ahang's site to download volume 1, I found that it has not yet been completed and uploaded to the site. The first volume in the series that was available was volume 3, so I downloaded that instead. [I'll go back to volumes 1 and 2 when they appear.] Volume 3 is titled "Eight Years Near Abdu'l-Baha" and is the memoir of Dr Habib Mu'ayyad. His birth name was Habibu'llah, but Abdu'l-Baha later gave him the name Mu'ayyad (confirmed). He was born in Kirmanshah, Iran, in 1888, into a Baha'i family of Jewish descent. In 1907, he spent a month on pilgrimage with Abdu'l-Baha in Akka. He then moved to Beirut for study and work, associating with Abdu'l-Baha and other prominent believers of the time before his return to Iran in 1915. He wrote down his recollections of what happened and what Abdu'l-Baha did and said during these eight years. Ahang has used a selection of these notes as the basis of this document. Volume 3 is a substantial document, with over 300 pages. So far, I have read up to page 88. Because of the size, I've decided to begin my review with this first section, before reading on. That is why I've called this Volume 3, part 1.

The document begins with Habib Mu'ayyad's introduction. Here, he tells us that in recording his memoirs, he decided that the most important thing for him to record were his days in the holy land with Abdu'l-Baha and the friends. The other parts of his life were not included and must be left for another book. I can understand his reasoning here – of course those days in the holy land are the most important and certainly of greatest interest to Baha'is. But the statement left me thinking that the memoirs would be made up of a stream of accounts about this event and then that, without any revealing detail about how these events were viewed by the author. The result being a formula something like this: I did this and then I did that, and I saw this and that, and Abdul-Baha did this and said that, and it was all wonderful. Unfortunately, by leaving the truly personal out of the account, much of the meaning and significance of the events are lost. It makes the text hard to read, seeming to meander along and leaving you wondering why you should bother. For me, these are the issues I come up against when I am faced with reading these accounts. It has to do with the issue of what is biography and what is good biography. As a 21st century Western woman, I have very different ideas to a 19th century Iranian man about what good biography is. And so, as I expected, I did find myself struggling with the text for these reasons. But I persevered nonetheless, because the narrative is peppered with interesting insights that do reveal genuine personal impressions, even though an attempt has been made to eliminate that part of the experience, with the exception of the descriptions of personal cosmic wonder.

The narrative begins with Habib Mu'ayyad describing his journey out of Iran and his travels along the way, where he stayed in this and that town and with this and that famous Baha'i. Most events are described with great flourish. Habib Mu'ayyad recognises that he is caught up in cosmic events. It leaves you feeling as if nothing mundane ever happens to him. "Filled with joy and elation, we constantly gave thanks for the divine grace that was so abundantly showered upon us. With feelings of ecstasy and rapture we pondered how, through God's bounty, strangers were turned into age-old friends, how the means for the universal unity of men were provided and how spiritual brothers and sisters surrounded all His servants. How wondrous indeed was the field of love and how vast the realm of fellowship spread before us!" (pp12-13) And the believers he comes into contact with are described, no doubt justifiably, in equally exalted language. "After release from quarantine, we met the honoured Aqa Muhammad-Mustafa [Baghdadi], who was numbered among the firm and learned friends, possessed of poetic and cultured disposition, and in service to the Covenant and Testament was like a sharpened sword." (p17)

When Habib Mu'ayyad arrives in Akka, you get a sense from his account of what the place was actually like. "Filth and dirt enveloped everything. Unwashed Arabs and persistent mosquitoes were a source of great irritation." (p21) "[The] alleys were so narrow that if a pedestrian came from the opposite direction, we had to press our backs against the wall to let him pass."(p25) In a footnote, he tells us that "The congestion of Akka's fleas is well beyond the imagination of those that have not experienced it. I recall that while in Khan-i Umdan (the caravanserai), my feet were covered with them, much like wearing a black boot." (p25) Nevertheless, even this experience cannot escape the exalted language: "From the hair of its [Akka's] camels we inhaled the fragrance of life, and from its fleas we heard the melody of divine verses." (p25)

The end of chapter 1 and most of chapter 2 consist of Habib Mu'ayyad's accounts of what Abdu'l-Baha said while he was on this month-long pilgrimage. Again, in describing Abdu'l-Baha, he expresses himself using language of rapture: "Day and night I had the bounty of beholding Abdu'l-Baha'is countenance and drinking my fill of His engaging utterances. Sometimes I was thrilled to the depths of my soul and at other instances my tears flowed unceasingly. From the rapture of this wine of union, I was so intoxicated that I beheld no world save the realm of the spirit and the paradise above."(p25) I don't doubt that meeting Abdu'l-Baha is a cosmic spiritual experience that one would never get over. But the trouble with the language is that, when all experiences are described as being the most spiritual ever, the whole thing loses it impact, and you find yourself glossing over what ought to be a truly moving account.

What is illuminating is a comment Habib Mu'ayyad wrote about this pilgrimage later on in life in a preface to the memoirs of this time. He says: "At that time, I was neither overly concerned with spiritual issues, nor with matters pertaining to the world hereafter. My sole desire was to behold the luminous countenance of the Master, and, in a state of rapture, listen to him speak."(p33) When I read this, I was quite taken aback. It made me question the sincerity of what I'd read so far about his impressions of the pilgrimage. After all, he'd lead me to believe that it was beyond, well, everything, absolutely! In what state, I wondered, was he actually in? I struggled to understand how one could be interested in the "luminous countenance" of the Master on the one hand, and, on the other, not have a particular interest in spiritual issues. I think this shows the cultural differences between me and Habib Mu'ayyad. For example, a Western youth who knew nothing of the faith would only show interest in Abdu'l-Baha because s/he was interested in spiritual matters – the two would be synonymous. But someone brought up in the faith in Iran would be taught about Abdu'l-Baha from the cradle, before having a chance to form an opinion about spiritual issues. In any case, one reason I mention this is that the personal does leak out of the text despite the effort that's gone into keeping it out.

In another revealing passage on page 32, Habib Mu'ayyad tells us that he was asked to write a 500-word essay in English on the subject of the faith. The essay was to be used to determine whether his written English was sufficient for him to join the fifth year of high school. Habib Mu'ayyad describes how he went about this exercise: "Fortunately, as I had studied various [Baha'i] pamphlets and booklets received from the United States, I was familiar with such big and prestigious words as 'Manifestation' and 'Divine Civilization', and some others. At the appointed time, I quickly penned a section on the history of the Cause, the Most Great Manifestation, and sacrifices of the martyrs in Iran, and devoted another section to whatever of the teachings I recalled." This essay did impress the school board and Habib Mu'ayyad was allowed into the fifth year.

As I said, chapter 2 is devoted entirely to accounts of Abdu'l-Baha. This is another sticking point for me. I struggle to read account after account of Abdu'l-Baha preaching, and encouraging and exhorting the believers in one way or another. In themselves, there is nothing wrong with them. But what happens to me is that I gradually get the feeling that Abdu'l-Baha spent all his time preaching at people. Of course, this is ridiculous. But because the accounts are presented in this relentless manner, you can't help but feel preached at, and the person doing the talking, indirectly, is Abdu'l-Baha. I feel sure that the accounts of Abdu'l-Baha's talks and letters that are published in books have influenced the way I see him. I have had to work hard at eradicating this view of him and developing a nuanced view in its place. So, be ready for a steady stream of reports of what Abdu'l-Baha said – in chapter 2, anyway. Although, it must be remembered that what's reported isn't what he said word for word. It is filtered through Habib Mu'ayyad's memory and understanding.

Despite that, there are of course some interesting things that Abdu'l-Baha is supposed to have said. One recurring theme is the matter of the Jews coming back to the holy land. Abdu'l-Baha mentioned this often because he was talking to believers of Jewish descent. On page 29, he is reported to have said (remember, this is 1907):

"This land is Palestine. It is a Holy Land. Soon the Jewish people shall return to this land, and once more David's sovereignty and Solomon's splendour shall be made manifest. This is an explicit divine promise, and there is no doubt therein. The Jewish people will be made resplendent. They will gather under the banner of the Cause. All of these barren fields will become fertile and cultivated. The scattered tribes of the Jewish people will be united. This region will become a center of industry and commerce, and will be refined and populated. Of this there is no doubt."

Abdu'l-Baha is reported to have made an interesting comment about Wahhabism.

"The Egyptian chiefs want to become Wahhabi and promote Wahhabi convictions. Perchance they hope to resist European expansion through wars, violence, confrontations and slaughter. However, they are increasingly powerless and ineffective. They use this as a distraction. 'A drowning man will cling to anything.' But it will bear no result, none whatsoever, since its foundation is infirm and not based on divine teachings. These very designs will cause their own division and demise. They must first understand what brought about the progress of Islam and then follow suit. Their goals will not be achieved through political methods or nationalistic sentiments, especially when they are imitating others. The initiator is of course superior to the imitator. 'And they who were foremost on earth – are the foremost still. These are they who shall be brought nigh to God.'[Qur'an 56:10-11] 'And God will never forget the one who has rendered victorious His cause. There is no demise for him, and the converse holds as well. These people will not become righteous at the end unless they become righteous at the beginning.'" (pp79-80)

So there we go, there is a comment by Abdu'l-Baha about what is now called 'Islamic fundamentalism'. I particularly like the comment in the last sentence: "These people will not become righteous at the end unless they become righteous at the beginning." This was my objection to Bush invading Iraq – putting aside the fact that he was lying about WMDs, which were his principal justification. It was clear that Bush was acting out of greed, self-interest and self-aggrandisement. How could anything good come out of that? If it's bad at the start, it's not going to miraculously turn overnight into a fully-functioning democracy in Iraq.

But, speaking of democracy, Abdu'l-Baha is reported to have made the following comments about the Constitutional Revolt in Iran.

"Tihran is in great agitation. In truth, the late Muzaffaru'd-Din Shah did all he could for his subjects. But it would have been better to have first educated the people of Iran, and then have given them liberty. It is like many well-fed and trained horses that have been raised on a ranch and then all of a sudden released and set free. The result is chaos and disorder.

Now in Tihran they are beating, killing and cursing each other. They desire civilization, and indeed civil society is a good thing: but it must depend on spiritual education. Otherwise, the outward evidences of civilization are the Krupp cannons, Henry Martin guns and other destructive weapons. This is not civilization."

I could go on with quoting passages, but I'll finish with this one, which emphasises the importance of building the Mashriqu'l-Adhkar. The subject came up about Habib Mu'ayyad's father, who had built a hostel so that the Baha'is and others had a place to stay when they travelled through the city. Abdu'l-Baha loved the idea of the believers building a hostel in their towns so that Baha'is would know they had a place to stay when they travelled. However, in the middle of this enthusiastic support for building hostels, Abdu'l-Baha pulls back and says that, before building hostels, the believers must build the Mashriqu'l-Adhkar first.

"This is very wonderful! The friends of God must do the same in every town and hamlet and provide a befitting place for the comfort of the itinerant believers so that when they go from town to town, they know that in a fixed location such hospitality is provided for them. It would be as if they had a personal residence in that spot and thereby would enjoy its comfort and be surrounded by tranquility. However, the friends must first build a Mashriqu'l-Adhkar, and only then a hostel. 'Ishqabad's Mashriqu'l-Adhkar was built in the midst of tumult and turmoil, and yet it is a mother that will constantly give birth. The Mashriqu'l-Adhkar is a magnet that attracts divine confirmations and draws divine assistance." (p39)

But the idea that the believers should build a Mashriqu'l-Adhkar in every town and hamlet has been lost, even though Abdu'l-Baha was unequivocal in his call for it. And, I think, the confirmations and divine assistance that go with it have been lost too.

Commentary on Tablet of the Son

 Commentary on Tablet of the Son