By Elizabeth Rochester
Over the years, my experience has been that Baha’is from Iran have a much deeper and more intense response to stories of the martyrs than do people, even Baha’is, from the West. There is a deep grief combined with an undying admiration; there is nothing negative or guarded in the response. However, these are not stories we Baha’is of the West are inclined to tell to our friends and acquaintances outside the Faith. We have long been aware that martyrdom is not a popular concept Indeed, people here are more likely to speak of a martyr-complex, with an obviously negative relationship to such a “sick” attitude, than they ever do of martyrs, even Christian martyrs. . As a result, the stories are, generally speaking, neither learned nor shared, not even with our children.
In the news these days, we frequently hear of suicide bombers, mostly young people, both male and female, and sometimes even older women, who have been trained to believe that they are performing a service for God and will be rewarded as martyrs in paradise, and will certainly be considered martyrs by their friends and admirers. And earlier, we learned that young men who had been recruited into the army to fight on behalf of Iran against one of her enemies were, when killed, reported as martyrs for their cause.
The subject of martyrs and martyrdom, as a result, is a highly charged one and not one likely to inspire admiration. How, then, are we to share the knowledge of our history with its more than 20,000 martyrs? How do we cross this enormous gap between the promotion of martyrdom for warfare, the politically motivated murders by suicide bombers, and the reality of the astonishing history of the willingness of thousands of innocent people to die rather than to deny their Faith? In my experience, it is not easy.
Perhaps we could begin by explaining that Baha’u’llah didn’t encourage believers to seek to die for the Faith. Indeed, He taught the believers to avoid danger and He, Himself, protected believers from attacks by enemies of the Faith. As an example, consider the story of Tahirih, (The Dawn-Breakers, pp 284-5). However, we were guided never to deny our Faith. Apparently, in Shiah Muslim culture, it was acceptable to deny your faith in order to save your life. And very frequently, the Baha’is have been offered freedom if they would deny their Faith.
Perhaps it would also help if we shared the fact that there are different kinds of martyrdom. Is it possible that three kinds were described in the Arabic Hidden Words:
O SON OF MAN! Write all that We have revealed unto thee with the ink of light upon the tablet of thy spirit. Should this not be in thy power, then make thine ink of the essence of thy heart. If this thou canst not do, then write with that crimson ink that hath been shed in My path. Sweeter indeed is this to Me than all else, that its light may endure for ever. (Baha’u’llah: Arabic Hidden Words, Page: 71)
It seems possible, to me, that the last sentence is often thought to refer only to the willingness to die for our Faith, but surely it refers to the each and every one of the prior statements. Before we go further, let us reflect on the following words of ‘Abdu’l-Baha:
“O army of God! The Exalted One, the Bab, gave up His life. The Blessed Perfection gave up a hundred lives at every breath. He bore calamities. He suffered anguish. He was imprisoned. He was chained. He was made homeless and was banished to distant lands. Finally, then, He lived out His days in the Most Great Prison. Likewise, a great multitude of the lovers of God who followed this path have tasted the honey of martyrdom and they gave up everything – life, possessions, kindred – all they had. How many homes were reduced to rubble; how many dwellings were broken into and pillaged; how many a noble building went to the ground; how many a palace was battered into a tomb. And all this came about that humankind might be illumined, that ignorance might yield to knowledge, that men of earth might become men of heaven, that discord and dissension might be torn out by the roots, and the Kingdom of Peace become established over all the world. Strive ye now that this bounty become manifest, and this best-beloved of all hopes be realized in splendour throughout the community of man.” (Selections from the Writings of `Abdu’l-Baha, Page: 73)
Should this not be the focus of our thoughts, that all this suffering, whether through death or throughout life or both, “came about that humankind might be illumined”?
Different Kinds of Martyrdom
Over the years, from reading the prayers of Baha’u’llah, I came to a different and deeper understanding of the words of Jesus. I had never understood His cry from the cross “..why hast thou forsaken me?”1; I was aware that many thought it was His “human side”, reluctant to die, but that never seemed real to me or consistent with the rest of His life. However, when I read Baha’u’llah’s words: “How long wilt Thou forsake me. Lift me up to Thee, I pray Thee.”2 I came to understand that, by being “forsaken” both Jesus and Baha’u’llah meant that they were still alive and had not been taken to the next world. They were both asking: “Lift me up to Thee…”
We must know that, relatively speaking, it is not hard to die; look at the number of people who choose suicide over continuing with a painful life? Earlier, while on the Mount of Olives, Jesus asked: “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine be done.” (St. Luke, Ch. 22, v. 42). Jesus had only three years in which to give His Revelation. I understood Him to be asking if His life could be extended. Others may have understood Him differently. Baha’u’llah describes His wish to be “lifted up” as the wish of a human creature, and yet He affirms: “I quaff continually in the path of God the cup of His decree, and wish not that the ruling of His will should cease to operate, or that the woes I suffer for the sake of my Lord, the Most Exalted, the All-Glorious, should be ended”3 , nor were they for He lived to be 75 years of age and, as ‘Abdul-Baha affirmed: “The Blessed Perfection gave up a hundred lives at every breath.” In enduring the suffering throughout His long life, He was enabled to reveal volumes of guidance so that the prayer of Jesus would be fulfilled: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
In this way, through reading the words of Baha’u’llah, I felt I came to a clearer understanding of what Jesus experienced and what His words meant. Each most wanted to do the will of God, whether that was to stay and give the Revelation, or to die and be lifted “up to Thee”. Who could question that They were both martyrs to Their Faith?
Three stories of martyrdom – one in the days of the Bab,
another after the Declaration of Baha’u’llah,
and a third early in the 20th Century
The first story indicates that Haji Nasir could not call himself a Babi unless he was prepared to die if the enemy rose up against him.4 He underwent a spiritual self-examination and decided he could call himself a Babi. The enemy did arise against him several times. He left his native city and later returned to it; he was imprisoned and released and later imprisoned again, and again, eventually dying of old age, unable to endure the rigours of prison life. This is not a person seeking death, but only steadfast in his determination to teach the Cause of God.
Here is his story:
Haji Nasir was a well-known merchant and held in high esteem by his fellow citizens until he embraced the Bábí Faith. From that time onwards, he suffered persecutions and was bitterly opposed by the people. He recognized the divine origin of the Message of the Báb through Mulla Jalil-i-Urumi, one of the Letters of the Living. It is reported that when Haji Nasir had acknowledged the authenticity of the claims of the Báb, Mulla Jalil warned him that a mere acknowledgement was not sufficient in this day, that he could not call himself a Bábí unless he were prepared to lay down his life willingly in the path of God, should the enemy rise up against him. He bade him go home and search his heart to see whether he had sufficient faith to remain steadfast in the face of tortures and martyrdom. If he did, he was a Bábí, and otherwise not. Haji Nasir responded to the words of Mulla Jalil by spending the whole night in prayer and meditation. At the hour of dawn, he felt possessed of such faith and detachment as to be ready to sacrifice his life in the path of his Beloved. Overnight, he became endowed with a new zeal and radiance which sustained him throughout his eventful life.
Soon the persecutions started; the first onslaught began when Haji Nasir became the target of attacks by a blood-thirsty mob in Qazvin. They plundered all his possessions and he was temporarily forced to leave his native city. When the situation calmed down he returned home. From there, in obedience to the call of the Báb, he proceeded to Khurasan. He was privileged to attend the conference of Badasht where, some historians have stated, he acted as a guard at the entrance of the garden which was reserved for Bahá’u’lláh’s residence. From Badasht he proceeded to Mazindaran and was one of the defenders of the fortress of Shaykh Tabarsi. As history records, hundreds of his fellow disciples were massacred in that upheaval, but the hand of divine power spared Haji Nasir’s life and enabled him to render further services to the Cause of God.
He returned to Qazvin and engaged in his work once again, but soon another upheaval engulfed the believers. The attempt on the life of Násiri’d-Dín Sháh in 1852 unleashed a wave of persecution against the Bábís. Haji Nasir was arrested in Qazvin and put in prison. But after some time he was released. Another imprisonment he suffered was in Tihran, where he was chained and fettered. When released from his ordeal, he found that all his possessions were gone. It was through the help and co-operation of Shaykh Kazim-i-Samandar that, in spite of much harassment by the enemy, Haji Nasir continued to earn a living, but he had to move his residence to the city of Rasht.
The crowning glory of his life was to attain the presence of Bahá’u’lláh in ‘Akká. On this pilgrimage he was accompanied by the above-named Shaykh Kazim. Bahá’u’lláh showered His bounties upon him and assured him of His loving-kindness. He spent the latter part of his life in the city of Rasht and was engaged in teaching the Cause of God by day and night. The enemies once again cast him into prison. This time, because of old age, he could not endure the rigours of prison life and his soul, after so many years of toil and suffering, took its flight to the abode of the Beloved. He died a martyr’s death in the prison of Rasht in the year 1300 A.H. (1888). (Adib Taherzadeh, The Revelation of Baha’u’llah v 2, p. 245-6)
The second story, in a later period, makes it clear that there are different kinds of martyrdom:
“…Ibn – i -Asdaq often accompanied his father on his teaching tours throughout Persia. Thus he became imbued with the spirit of service to the Cause of Baha’u’llah and eventually developed a passionate love for Him, a love that knew no bounds. He was about thirty years of age when he sent a letter to the presence of Bahá’u’lláh and, among other things, begged Him to confer upon him a station wherein he might become completely detached from such realms as ‘life and death’, ‘body and soul’, ‘existence and nothingness’, ‘reputation and honour’.
“The gist of everything Ibn -i -Asdaq requested in this letter was the attainment of the station of ‘utter self-sacrifice’; a plea for martyrdom, a state in which the individual in his love for his Beloved will offer up everything he possesses. …
“In response Bahá’u’lláh revealed a Tablet to Ibn -i -Asdaq. This was in January 1880. In this Tablet… He states that service to the Cause is the greatest of all deeds, and that those who are the symbols of certitude ought to be engaged in teaching with the utmost wisdom. He further explains that martyrdom is not confined to the shedding of blood, as it is possible to live and yet be counted as a martyr in the sight of God. In this Tablet Baha’u’llah showers upon him His blessings, for he had offered up his all to his Lord.” (Adib Taherzadeh, The Revelation of Baha’u’llah, vol. 3, pp. 2667)
The third story is that of the life of May Maxwell, the mother of Ruhiyyih Khanum, who died, only a few weeks after pioneering to South America, and was declared a martyr by Shoghi Effendi. (Her story can be read in the Baha’i World, Vol. VIII, pp. 631-642.) There is no question that May Maxwell devoted her entire life, subsequent to learning of the Faith, to teaching and serving it. ‘Abdu’l-Baha said of her: “May Maxwell is really a Baha’i…She breathed no breath and uttered no word save in service to the Cause of God.” (p. 638)
The words of the Guardian make very clear for us why she was named a martyr:
And now as this year, so memorable in the annals of the Faith, was drawing to a close, there befell the American Baha’i community, through the dramatic and sudden death of May Maxwell, yet another loss, which viewed in retrospect will come to be regarded as a potent blessing conferred upon the campaign now being so diligently conducted by its members. 5 Laden with the fruits garnered through well-nigh half a century of toilsome service to the Cause she so greatly loved, heedless of the warnings of age and ill-health, and afire with the longing to worthily demonstrate her gratitude in her overwhelming awareness of the bounties of her Lord and Master, she set her face towards the southern outpost of the Faith in the New World, and laid down her life in such a spirit of consecration and self-sacrifice as has truly merited the crown of martyrdom. (Shoghi Effendi: Messages to America, Pages: 39-40)
From these words we can easily see that the sudden death and the entire life of May Maxwell, so gloriously dedicated to the service of the Faith, was a blessing not only for her but for all her co- workers labouring for the spread of the Faith.
Let us return now to the challenge: how do we share stories of the utterly amazing, unique, and inspiring history of our Faith? For clearly, 20,000 martyrs were not believers who simply dedicated their lives to teaching the Faith. They were believers who, refusing to deny their Faith and to cease from teaching, were killed. They were no threat to anyone unless you consider, as a threat, belief in teachings revealed by the Bab and Baha’u’llah that all the Manifestations of God were created by the one and only God Who has created all humanity, loves all humanity, and revealed His will to all of us progressively throughout the ages, and that, in this day and age, it is His will that we recognize our oneness and the oneness of religion, and live together in unity and peace.
In the strongest possible language, Baha’u’llah describes and explains the sufferings of our time. For the sake of brevity, I have reduced 2 ½ pages to the following:
“As to the words – “Immediately after the oppression of those days” – they refer to the time when men shall become oppressed and afflicted, the time when the lingering traces of the Sun of Truth and the fruit of the Tree of knowledge and wisdom will have vanished from the midst of men… Such a condition as this is witnessed in this day when the reins of every community have fallen into the grasp of foolish leaders… Their hearts seem not to be inclined to knowledge and the door thereof, neither think they of its manifestations, inasmuch as in idle fancy they have found the door that leadeth unto earthly riches, whereas in the manifestation of the Revealer of knowledge they find naught but the call to self-sacrifice. They therefore naturally hold fast unto the former, and flee from the latter…. In leadership they have recognized the ultimate object of their endeavour, and account pride and haughtiness as the highest attainments of their heart’s desire. They have placed their sordid machinations above the divine decree, have renounced resignation unto the will of God, busied themselves with selfish calculation, and walked in the way of the hypocrite. With all their power and strength they strive to secure themselves in their petty pursuits, fearful lest the least discredit undermine their authority or blemish the display of their magnificence. Were the eye to be anointed and illumined with the collyrium of the knowledge of God, it would surely discover that a number of voracious beasts have gathered and preyed upon the carrion of the souls of men.” (Baha’u’llah: The Kitab-i-Iqan, Pages: 29-31)
Is it possible to make it any clearer that it is not the will of God that people die for their Faith but the will of “leaders” who “in idle fancy .. have found the door that leadeth unto earthly riches, whereas in the manifestation of the Revealer of knowledge they find naught but the call to self-sacrifice”.?
How and When did the Trouble Begin?
The Bab sent Mulla Husayn to Teheran to find and present the Faith, among others, to Baha’u’llah. When the Bab received word that Baha’u’llah had been found, had recognized Him and was teaching His Faith, He was confident that, if He Himself were killed, His Faith would survive under Baha’u’llah’s leadership.
“The references in Mulla Husayn’s letter to Bahá’u’lláh’s immediate response to the Divine Message, to the vigorous campaign which He had boldly initiated in Nur, and to the marvellous success which had attended His efforts, cheered and gladdened the Báb, and reinforced His confidence in the ultimate victory of His Cause. He felt assured that if now He were to fall suddenly a victim to the tyranny of His foes and depart from this world, the Cause which He had revealed would live; would, under the direction of Bahá’u’lláh, continue to develop and flourish, and would yield eventually its choicest fruit. The master-hand of Bahá’u’lláh would steer its course, and the pervading influence of His love would establish it in the hearts of men. Such a conviction fortified His spirit and filled Him with hope. From that moment His fears of the imminence of peril or danger entirely forsook Him. Phoenix-like He welcomed with joy the fire of adversity, and gloried in the glow and heat of its flame. (Shoghi Effendi, The Dawn-Breakers, p. 128)
When Mulla Husayn’s letter was received, therefore, the Bab immediately began his travels, including His pilgrimage, and the declaration of His mission.
Shoghi Effendi describes the immediate repercussions of this declaration:
“The Bab’s return to His native land (Safar 1261) (February- March, 1845) was the signal for a commotion that rocked the entire country. The fire which the declaration of His mission had lit was being fanned into flame through the dispersal and activities of His appointed disciples. Already within the space of less than two years it had kindled the passions of friend and foe alike. The outbreak of the conflagration did not even await the return to His native city of the One Who had generated it. The implications of a Revelation,… a Faith Whose religious doctrines, Whose ethical standards, social principles and religious laws challenged the whole structure of the society in which it was born, soon ranged, with startling unanimity, the mass of the people behind their priests, and behind their chief magistrate, with his ministers and his government, and welded them into an opposition sworn to destroy, root and branch, the movement initiated by One Whom they regarded as an impious and presumptuous pretender.” (Shoghi Effendi: God Passes By, Page: 10)
In the Epilogue to the Dawn-Breakers, Shoghi Effendi describes, with heart-rending brevity, the results of this opposition, and the footnote which follows indicates that this is a fulfillment of prophecy :
“The flower of the Báb’s followers had been mown down in a ruthless carnage, leaving behind it a vast company of enslaved women and children, who groaned beneath the yoke of an unrelenting foe. Their leaders, who, alike by their knowledge and example, had fed and sustained the flame that glowed in those valiant hearts, had also perished, their work seemingly abandoned amidst the confusion that afflicted a persecuted community.
“Of all those who had shown themselves capable of carrying on the work which the Báb had handed down to His followers, Bahá’u’lláh alone remained.
[1 Mirza Abu’l-Fadl quotes in his “Fara’id” (pp. 50-51), the following remarkable tradition from Muhammad, which is recognized as an authentic utterance of the Prophet and to which Siyyid Abdu’l-Vahhab-i-Sha’rani refers in his work entitled “Kitábu’l-Yavaqit-iva’l-Javahir”: “All of them [the companions of the Qá’im] shall be slain except One who shall reach the plain of ‘Akká, the Banquet-Hall of God.” The full text is also mentioned, according to Mirza Abu’l-Fadl, by Shaykh Ibnu’l-‘Arabi in his “Futuhat-i-Makkiyyih.”] Shoghi Effendi, The Dawnbreakers, p. 654
The Seven Martyrs of Tihran
It is against this immense picture of “ruthless carnage” that we are invited, in Book 7 of the Ruhi courses: “Walking Together on a Path of Service” to study the lives and learn to tell the stories of the Seven Martyrs of Tihran. Who were these people, these wonderful people, who, among many others before and after them, “fed and sustained the flame that glowed in those valiant hearts”? Is it not amazing that the Baha’i Faith could survive such a loss of all its great leaders but one, Baha’u’llah?
Let us return now to Section 7 of the course where we find these word:
“Story telling is an art which when used properly can inspire, animate, stimulate imagination, convey profound concepts, teach and even lead to change of behavior.” ( Walking Together on a Path of Service, p.120)
And let us do our level best to follow the guidance of Shoghi Effendi:
“Utilize, as extensively as you possibly can, the wealth of material which Nabil’s stirring and precious narrative contains, and let it be your chief instrument wherewith you can feed the flame of enthusiasm that glows in every Baha’i heart and upon which the success of your magnificent, your incessant efforts must ultimately depend.”
There is one final note which I would like to add. It may be possible to contribute, over time, to another hope expressed by Shoghi Effendi:
“Shoghi Effendi was very much interested to learn of the success of the `Pageant of Nations’ you reproduced… “It is through such presentations that we can arouse the interest of the greatest number of peoples in the spirit of the Cause. That day will the Cause spread like wild fire when its spirit and teachings will be presented on the stage or in art and literature as a whole. Art can better awaken such noble sentiments than cold rationalizing especially among the mass of the people. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, Page: 98)
“As we grow in our capacity to tell the stories of the heroes of our Faith, perhaps some souls, blessed with the necessary gifts and skills, will be inspired to produce plays and maybe movies and other forms of art. Let us pray and work for the fulfillment of our Guardian’s prediction: “It is through such presentations that we can arouse the interest of the greatest number of peoples in the spirit of the Cause.”
2 I swear by Thy glory, O my God! Thy Lamp which Thou didst light within the tabernacle of man crieth out to Thee and saith: “O Thou the one alone Beloved! How long wilt Thou forsake me? Lift me up to Thee, I pray Thee. Though this wish of mine be the wish of a human creature, yet Thou knowest that my true wish is to sacrifice myself in Thy path. Thou art He Who hath made my desire to be the same as Thy desire, and my will the same as Thy will. Do Thou preserve Thy loved ones, I beseech Thee, in the shelter of Thy shadowing mercy which transcendeth all things, that haply the sufferings they bear may not deter them from turning in the direction of Thy name, the All-Glorious, the Most Bountiful.” (Baha’u’llah: Prayers and Meditations, Page: 151)
3 My blood, at all times, addresseth me saying: “O Thou Who art the Image of the Most Merciful! How long will it be ere Thou riddest me of the captivity of this world, and deliverest me from the bondage of this life? Didst Thou not promise me that Thou shalt dye the earth with me, and sprinkle me on the faces of the inmates of Thy Paradise?” To this I make reply: “Be thou patient and quiet thyself. The things thou desirest can last but an hour. As to me, however, I quaff continually in the path of God the cup of His decree, and wish not that the ruling of His will should cease to operate, or that the woes I suffer for the sake of my Lord, the Most Exalted, the All-Glorious, should be ended. Seek thou my wish and forsake thine own. Thy bondage is not for my protection, but to enable me to sustain successive tribulations, and to prepare me and to prepare me for the trials that must needs repeatedly assail me. (Baha’u’llah, Prayers and Meditations, pp. 10-11)
4 It is interesting to note that the story says: “a mere acknowledgement was not sufficient in this day”. The history of the Faith unfolds in ages and epics. The needs of one “day” differ from another.