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This newsletter offers a glimpse into the unpublished and inaccessible archives of the writings of Abdu’l-Baha. Presenting this glimpse is a young Vahid Rafati who would later on become the director of research at the Baha’i World Center. This is a rather privileged and enviably position as, unlike most other scholars, it allows him access to source materials.
Also in this newsletter we see the first signs of a negative reaction to the LA classes. In this instance, a person reacted in an obviously emotional state to the statement that Baha’is are not forbidden from reading Covenant-Breaker material. I say emotional because clearly she did not take the time to think about the matter in a level headed way. If she had, she would have realized that the very quotes she supplied supported the statement she was so vehemently opposed to. This is not surprising when you consider that the average Baha’i has a visceral repulsion when it comes to covenant-breakers and enters into a somewhat irrational state when talking about them. I myself have run into this several times where angry Baha’is frothing at the mouth, quote things left and right without once taking the time to digest what they are saying.
If this is your first newsletter, you might also want to read the introduction to the LA study class, here.
On with the 70′s class . . .
Vahid noted that Abdu’l-Baha began writing when He was still in His mid-teens, at one point setting out a treatise on the authority of the Prophet Muhammad. During the course of His life, Abdu’l-Baha wrote books on history, philosophy, religion and a whole host of general subjects. Most of these works are unkown in the West.
From a Baha’i point of view, among His most interesting writings were the estimated 8,000 tablets or letters He wrote to individuals, Assemblies, Baha’i conventions, scholars, government officials, scientists and groups with ideals akin to the Faith. These notes varied in length from three to four lines to a thousand verses.
Vahid, who studied many of the tablets addressed to westerners reported “it is very difficult to see a formulated, and crystalized ideology in Abdu’l-Baha’s writings.” Nothing about His life is clear to us, and no attempt has been made to study His life and achievements.”
The tablets themselves were mostly written in Persian, although about 25% of them were composed in Arabic. Letters from Abdu’l-Baha began to appear in the West from about 1898 and continued (except during World War I, when Palestine was cut off from the West) through His death in 1921. Vahid said many of the tablets to early Western Baha’is were translated for them by Ali Kuli Khan or Dr. Zia Baghdadi, two Persian Baha’i pioneers living in the Chicago area.
Most of the tablets are quite short, ranging from five to fifteen lines in length, with a few running as long as 25 lines. Each tablet has His personal seal or signature on it. Abdu’l-Baha also signed those tablets to westerners in English script, writing His name: “abdu’l-Baha abbas.”
He also addressed the letters with a blessing to the recipient, sometimes beginning by writing, “be upon him Baha el-Abha” or using the honorific “Maidservant of God.” Abdu’l-Baha rarely initiated any correspondence, but usually wrote in reply to someone. Parenthetically, Vahid noted that one of the problems in classifying the tablets is that the letters to which they respond are not available, although, apparently, some are kept in Haifa but have not been collated nor sorted through. This presents an insoluable problem in some cases, for Abdu’l-Baha often replies to explain “the verse about which you asked” without noting what verse that was.
Despite the fragmented nature of the tablets, some stylistic similarities come through. Many of the tablets are written to encourage the fledgling American Baha’i community, and often the Master would compare the early Baha’is with the first Christians noting that Jesus’ first disciples also were few in number and humble in station. Abdu’l-Baha also frequently used naturalistic symbols in His writings, urging the American Baha’is to be “radiant like the sun” or unified “like the drops of one ocean.”
The main subject of His tablets were clarifications of the true teachings of Baha’u’llah, responses to personal inquiries about marriage and divorce problems and offerings of personal advice. (Writing to one lady who evidently informed Him she was divorcing her husband, Abdu’l-Baha repleid that He was distressed by this news and told her that her spiritual love for her estranged husband must increase “until you are like brother and sister.”)
He also repeatedly stressed His confidence in the eventual triumph of the Faith in the West. While people would write to complain about the lack of progress of the Baha’i Faith in gaining widespread acceptance in early 20th century America, He would reply that, in time, the Faith would be embraced by multitudes. He noted that, while the early Baha’is were reviled and sometimes ostracized by hostile non-Baha’is, that also had been the case with early Christians.
Some of the Master’s tablets concerned California, which He said had the capacity to spread the teachings of God. He also offered lavish praise for Thornton Chase, the first American Baha’i, now buried in Inglewood, a suburb of Los Angeles. Abdu’l-Baha instructed the Baha’is of the Los Angeles area to heap bunches of flowers on Mr. Chase’s grace and recite prayers all day long on the anniversary of his death. Once, when a San Francisco Baha’i wrote about the fewness of the number of Baha’is in Los Angeles (San Francisco always was jealous of Los Angeles), Abdu’l-Baha replied that while the Los Angeles assembly was small, if its members were steadfast in their belief, they could march in the forefront of the Baha’i ranks. In response to another letter, He told an inquirer that it was not permitted to hand out Baha’i literature on the streets and in public places.
Vahid said that his reading of the tablets convinced him that Abdu’l-Baha was flexible in His thinking, but firm to the point of being rigid when it came to matters of loyalty to the Covenant. He also emphasized to the Baha’is to whom He wrote that they must reflect their religious beliefs in their lifestyles, avoiding the examples of Christians and Jews who professed one mode of behavior and practice another.
Abdu’l-Baha sometimes would compose prayers on request and, in a few instances, consented to interpret dreams of those who wrote to Him for such explanations. And, there were the usual requests for explanations of Baha’i social teachings, the importance of selecting a universal language. And, in response to other requests, the Master delved into philosophical topics, such as the goal of creation, the station of man, man’s relation to God and the like.
He also devoted some communication to dispelling misunderstandings about His own authority. To those people who addressed Him as a Prophet or even – a common misconception in those early days – as the Return of Christ, He denied having prophetic powers or authority. He would then briefly explain that He was the Center of Baha’u’llah’s Covenant and the authorized interpreter of His father’s writings, but could not establish His own rules or create His own religion.
And, Abdu’l-Baha also offered explanations of verses in the Kitab-i-Aqdas or passages from The Hidden Words, urged Western Baha’is to learn Persian and to memorize selected Baha’i prayers.
He also identified several important Tablets of Baha’u’llah which He urged be translated into English and disseminated to non-Baha’is as representative samplings of what the Faith believes. These Tablets were later identified by Shoghi Effendi as supplementing and modifying the Kitab-i-Aqdas. They are the “Ishraqat” (Splendors), “Bisharat” (Glad Tidings), “Tarazat” (Ornaments), “Tajalliyat” (Effulgences), “Kalimat-i-Ferdawsiyyih” (Words of Paradise), “Lawh-i-Aqdas” (Most Holy Tablets), “Lawh-i-Dunya” (Tablet of the World), and “Lawh-i-Maqsud” (Tablet of Maqsud)[Ed. which means: 'Tablet of the Goal' or 'Desired One']. Two other important works in this regard are the “Kitab-i-Ahd” (Baha’u’llah’s Covenant) and “Questions and Answers”.
Vahid was reluctant to draw any conclusions from his research since he had not read the Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha in other archives. He said it is not clear why Abdu’l-Baha would take certain positions in what He wrote, nor is very much known about what outside influences in terms of cultural and intellectual contacts He had that might have shaped what He wrote. Some class members, however, argued that the 1,400 tablets which Vahid read was a broad enough sample to begin making some generalizations which could always later be amended if new facts came to light. They further argued that it is a mistake to believe that a complete reading of Abdu’l-Baha’s correspondence would bring us any closer to valid generalizations about Abdu’l-Baha’s teachings.
Objections were also raised to Vahid’s estimate of 8,000 for the number of tablets of Abdu’l-Baha in existence. (This estimate was based on the fact that there are about 2,000 tablets in the American archives and about 5,000 in the Persian Archives.) It is well known that, at one period at least, Abdu’l-Baha was producing 90 tablets a day. At that rate, He would have finished 8,000 tablets in less than three months. Since Abdu’l-Baha’s ministry covered 29 years, we should expect that his correspondence was very much larger than this. The small number of tablets in the American and Persian archives does not take into account those on file in Haifa. Even so, it seems that the greatest number of Abdu’l-Baha’s tablets are still in the hands of private individuals.
Class members asked Vahid how he regarded the Baha’i doctrine of infallibility with regard to Abdu’l-Baha’s tablets. Speficically, he was aked, could the Master have made an error, historical or scientific, for example, in what He wrote? Vahid said he saw no such mistakes in anything he read, but if one turned up, it would have to be held in abeyance until thorough investigation could be conducted.
POINT/COUNTERPOINT DEPT. We received a letter from Margeret Fife of Yonkers, New York, taking exception to some statements appearing in the August 14 newsletter regarding Bob Ballenger’s report: “Roles in Conflict: Baha’i Administration versus the Individual.” A summary of the class discussion which followed Ballenger’s report touched on the issue of censorship and the Baha’i Faith. It was noted that this attitude of suppression extends to the point where “Where Baha’is are being told they may not read books by enemies of the Cause nor by Covenant-Breakers. This is simply not true. Baha’is are not forbidden to read such books, although the community as a whole is discouraged from doing so.”
Ms. Fife objected to this language in a seven-page letter, such of which consisted in quotes from various Baha’i writings including the Will and Testament of Abdu’l-Baha and Star of the West. The text of her letter is too long to be included here, but, in substance, she wrote, quoting from the Will and Testament:
“One of the greatest and most fundamental principles of the Cause of God is to shun and avoid entirely the Covenant-Breakers, for they will utterly destroy the Cause of God, exterminate His Law and render of no account all efforts exerted in the past.”
A bit later, she added, quoting from a Canadian Baha’i booklist, The Power of the Covenant:
“Great danger is associated with reading material written by the Covenant-Breakers, and the strongest warnings are issued against such actions.” And “…certain believers have the unpleasant duty of having to read such works in the course of their duty to protect the Faith – but the friends are warned, in the strongest terms, of the danger of reading such literature. Unless one is very well informed of the history of the Faith and is deeply confirmed in one’s belief, the calumnies and distortions of truth contained in such literature can undermine one’s faith.”
BALLENGER REPLIES: Nothing Ms. Fife writes persuades me to change the conclusions stated in the August newsletter to which she objects. For one thing, she ignores the distinction between books by enemies of the Faith and Covenant-Breakers, evidently lumping these in the same class. That is falacious thinking, Baha’is are free to read whatever they please, including William Miller’s books The Baha’i Faith: Its History and Teachings, which is relentlessly hostile in its assessment of the Faith. As regards literature by Covenant-Breakers, Baha’is are not, despite what Ms. Fife implies, expressly forbidden to read their works. (For one thing, such prohibition would violate the Baha’i principle of independent investigation of the truth, a principle that does not become null and void when someone signs a declaration card.) The report pointed out that the Baha’i Community is discouraged from reading Covenant-Breaker material, although, again, it is not forbidden to do so. This, it seems to me, is right in line with the quotations Ms. Fife cited in her letter, so I can’t understand the grounds for her objections.
NEXT CLASS: Jon and Chris Hendershot recently attended the November session at the Bosch Baha’i School in Santa Cruz and will review a somewhat controversial class taught at the school. The major topic of the class was becoming a “born again” Baha’i, and the spiritual steps Baha’u’llah outlines for a personal rebirth. Also slated for discussion is a report on a video-tape shown at Bosch of a lecture by Peter Khan on the Baha’i concept of Collective Centers, what these are and how they work. The class will convene on Sunday, December 18, at 2 pm at the Hendershot home [Ed. Personal home address with directions and phone number follows].
The original scanned documents can be found here.