Abdu’l Baha – The Perfect Exemplar
The Life of Abdu’l Baha
In the city of Shiraz, Iran on the evening of 22 May 1844, a significant moment in human history occurred, when Bab declared the beginning of a new religious cycle for the world.
At midnight, on that same evening, a baby was born in Tehran at the house of Baha’u’llah. In honour of His own father, Baha’u’llah named His newborn son, ‘Abbas. As he grew up, Abbas chose to call Himself Abdu’l Baha, the “Servant of Baha”, and, through His life of service to humanity, became known as the living embodiment and exemplar of Baha’u’llah’s teachings.
Abdu’l Baha enjoyed a very privileged childhood until persecutions broke out against the Bab’s followers—and His father Baha’u’llah was the most prominent one among them. Baha’u’llah’s persecution for being a Babi marked a turning point for His family. Baha’u’llah’s condition in prison made an indelible impression on the mind of His eight year-old son Abdul Baha.
In December 1852, Baha’u’llah was released from prison after four months. Almost immediately, He was banished from Iran with His family. They would never see their native land again. On their way to Baghdad, Abdu’l Baha suffered frostbite and grieved over the separation from his baby brother, Mihdi, who was not well enough to make the grueling journey.
Soon after their arrival in Baghdad, another painful separation followed for Abdu’l Baha when Baha’u’llah retreated into the mountains of Sulaymaniyyah- Kurdistan for a period of two years. With His beloved Father away, Abdu’l Baha occupied His time reading and meditating upon the Writings of the Bab. Abdul Baha began to led his life based on these writings and teachings.
Service to Baha’u’llah
When Baha’u’llah finally returned, the 12 year-old Abdul Baha was overwhelmed with joy of seeing his father. Despite His tender age, Abdu’l Baha had already intuitively recognized the station of His Father. In the following years, Abdu’l Baha became Baha’u’llah’s representative and His secretary.
He shielded His Father from unnecessary intrusions and malice of the evil ones and became revered in circles beyond His Father’s followers, conversing with the wise and learned on themes and topics that occupied their minds. His already profound knowledge and understanding, and a striking mastery of language was demonstrated in One of the commentary He wrote while still in His teens. Throughout their exiles, Abdu’l Baha also assumed the burden of various negotiations with civil authorities and was also a part in the difficulties faced by his father.
During Baha’u’llah’s final banishment to Akka, Abdu’l Baha continued to protect His Father, took care of His followers, tended to the sick and the poor in the city, and dealt with the authorities who tried to harm His Father. Abdu’l Baha’s spirit of generosity, selfless service and adherence to principle endeared Him to those who came to know Him and, in time, won over even the most hard-hearted of enemies who hated Him.
The Centre of the Covenant
In His Most Holy Book, Baha’u’llah established a covenant with His followers, enjoining them to turn to Abdu’l Baha, after His passing away. Baha’u’llah describes as “Him Whom God hath purposed, Who hath branched from this Ancient Root.” Abdu’l Baha’s authority as the “Centre of the Covenant” was also established in other texts, including Baha’u’llah’s Will and Testament.
From the time of Bahá’u’lláh’s passing away, Abdu’l Baha oversaw the spread of His Father’s Faith to new territories of various regions, including that of North America and Europe. He received a steady flow of pilgrims from both the East and the West, carried out an extensive correspondence with Baha’is and seekers in all parts of the world, and lived an exemplary life of service to the people of Akka.
His younger half-brother—Mirza Muhammad Ali envied the influence of Abdu’l Baha and tried to undermine and usurp Abdu’l Baha’s authority. Muhammad Ali made efforts to stir up further suspicion against Abdu’l Baha in the minds of the already hostile authorities. This resulted in restrictions that had gradually been relaxed over the years being re-imposed. Although these attacks caused great pain to Abdu’l Baha and His loyal followers, they failed to cause lasting damage to the unity of the community or the spread of the Baha’i Faith.
Travel to the West
In 1907, Abdu’l Baha had begun moving His family to Haifa, across the bay from Akka, where He had built a house at the foot of Mount Carmel. In 1908, turmoil in the Ottoman capital culminated in the Young Turk Revolution. The Sultan released all of the empire’s religious and political prisoners and, after decades of imprisonment and exile, Abdu’l Baha was now freed.
Despite challenges they faced, work on a tomb for the Bab had proceeded, midway up the mountain, in a spot designated by Baha’u’llah Himself. In March 1909, Abdu’l Baha finally placed the Bab’s remains in the Shrine He had constructed.
The following year, Abdu’l Baha departed Haifa for Egypt, where He stayed one year, spending His days meeting diplomats, intellectuals, religious leaders and journalists. He began to spread the faith in a new style. In the late summer of 1911, He sailed for Europe, stopping at the French resort of Thonon-les-Bains before traveling to London.
On 10 September 1911, from the pulpit of the City Temple church in London, Abdu’l Baha gave a public address for the first time in His life. Subsequently he stayed there for a month in England. His stay was filled with activities promoting Baha’u’llah’s teachings and their application to many contemporary issues and problems, through public talks, meetings with the press and interviews with individuals. The days in London, and then Paris, set a pattern that He would follow throughout all of His travels.
In the spring of 1912, Abdu’l Baha travelled to the United States and Canada for nine months. He traveled from coast to coast, addressing different kind of audience, meeting people of all ranks and stations. At the end of the year, He returned to Britain and early in 1913, to France, from where He proceeded to Germany, Hungary and Austria, returning in May to Egypt, and on 5 December 1913, to the Holy Land-Akka.
Abdu’l Baha’s travels to the West contributed significantly in spreading Baha’u’llah’s teachings and the firm establishment of Baha’i communities in Europe and North America. In both continents, He received a highly appreciative welcome from distinguished audiences concerned about the condition of modern society. He created atmosphere devoted to concerns such as peace, women’s rights, racial equality, social reform and moral development.
During His travels, Abdu’l Baha’s message was the announcement that the age long-promise regarding unity of mankind had come. He frequently spoke of the need to create the social conditions and the international political instruments necessary to establish peace. Within two years, His premonitions of a world-encircling conflict became a reality.
The Great War
Abdu’l Baha’s communication with the Baha’is abroad was almost completely cut off with the beginning of the First World War. He spent the war years looking after the material and spiritual needs of the people around Him, personally organizing extensive agricultural operations, and averting a famine for the poor of all religions in Haifa and Akka. He was honoured with the title of Knighthood from the British Empire in April 1920 for His service to the people of Palestine.
During the war years, Abdu’l Baha produced one of the most important works of His ministry: fourteen letters, collectively known as the Tablets of the Divine Plan, addressed to the Baha’is of North America outlining the spiritual qualities and attitudes as well as the practical actions needed to spread the Baha’i teachings throughout the world.
In His old age, Abdu’l Baha remained remarkably vigorous. He was a loving father not only to the community of Baha’is in Haifa, but to the entire international movement. His correspondence guided Baha’is globally in their efforts to establish an organizational framework for the community. His interaction with a stream of pilgrims to the Holy Land was another medium through which He kept instructing and encouraging believers from around the world.
When He passed away at the age of 77 on 28 November 1921, His funeral was attended by 10,000 mourners of numerous religious backgrounds. In spontaneous tributes to an admired personality, Abdu’l Baha was eulogized as One who led humanity to the “Way of Truth,” as a “pillar of peace” and the embodiment of “glory and greatness.”
Abdu’l Baha’s mortal remains were laid to rest in one of the chambers of the Shrine of the Bab on Mount Carmel.