‘Abdu’l-Baha’s generosity was not lost on others. Even though He was a prisoner, and lived in prison or exile from the age of 9, He was still generous with what He had:
This man who gives so freely must be rich, you think? No, far otherwise. Once his family was the wealthiest in all Persia. But this friend of the lowly, like the Galilean, has been oppressed by the great. For fifty years he and his family have been exiles and prisoners. Their property has been confiscated and wasted, and but little has been left to him. Now that he has not much he must spend little for himself that he may give more to the poor. (Myron Henry Phelps and Bahiyyih Khanum, Life and Teachings of Abbas Effendi)This man who gives so freely must be rich, you think? No, far otherwise. Once his family was the wealthiest in all Persia. But this friend of the lowly, like the Galilean, has been oppressed by the great. For fifty years he and his family have been exiles and prisoners. Their property has been confiscated and wasted, and but little has been left to him. Now that he has not much he must spend little for himself that he may give more to the poor. (Myron Henry Phelps and Bahiyyih Khanum, Life and Teachings of Abbas Effendi)
Where on this globe can one duplicate such a scene as is enacted every Friday morning in the court yard of the Master of Acca, Who is Himself a state Prisoner to the Turkish government and has lived in prison or in exile since He was nine years of age!’ (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 80)
He helped everyone:
All the people know him and love him — the rich and the poor, the young and the old — even the babe leaping in its mother’s arms. If he hears of any one sick in the city — Moslem or Christian, or of any other sect, it matters not . . . Indeed, for counsel all come to him, rich as well as poor. He is the kind father of all the people. (HM Balyuzi, ‘Abdul-Bahá: the Centre of the Covenant, p. 100)
He even took care of those who hated Him:
While ‘Abdu’l-Baha was a prisoner in Akka, there was a man in that city who behaved very badly towards Him. The ignorant man believed that he was following the teachings of Muhammad. He thought that ‘Abdu’l-Baha was not a good man and that God did not care how badly the Baha’is were treated. In fact, he believed the he was showing love for God by showing hatred to the Baha’is. He hated ‘Abdu’l-Baha with all his heart. That hate grew and festered inside him, sometimes spilling out of him the way water spills out of a broken pot. In the mosque, when people came to pray, this man would cry out against ‘Abdul-Baha and say terrible things about Him. When he passed ‘Abdu’l-Baha on the street, he would cover his face with his robe so that he would not see Him. Now, this man was very poor and had neither enough to eat nor warm clothes to wear. What do you think ‘Abdu’l-Baha did about him? He showed him kindness, sent him food and clothes, and made sure he was being taken care of. For example, once when this man became very ill, ‘Abdu’l-Baha sent him a doctor, paid for his medicine and food and also gave him some money. He accepted the gifts from ‘Abdu’l-Baha but did not thank Him. In fact, this ignorant man held out one hand to the doctor to take his pulse, and with the other hand, covered his face so that he would not have to look upon the countenance of ‘Abdu’l-Baha. And so it went for many long years. And then, one day, the man’s heart finally changed. He came to ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s house, fell at His feet and with a very heavy heart and tears flowing down his face like twin rivers, cried, “Forgive me, Sir! For twenty-four years I have done evil to You. For twenty-four years You have shown only goodness to me. Now I know that I have bene wrong. Please forgive me!” Thus, the great love of “Abdu’l-Baha triumphed over hatred and saved this man from his condition of ignorance. (Ruhi Book 3: Children’s Classes Grade 1, p. 43-44)
He was recognized as a real leader among the prisoners, by the Governor of ‘Akka:
Soon after the arrival of Baha’u’llah and His party in ‘Akká the Governor visited the barracks for inspection. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, accompanied by a few believers, went to see him. But the Governor was discourteous and spoke to them in a provocative manner. He threatened to cut the supply of bread if one of the prisoners went missing and then ordered them back to their room. One of the Master’s attendants could not bear to remain silent after such insulting treatment. He retorted with rage and hurled back at the Governor some offensive remarks. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá immediately chastened His attendant by slapping him hard in the face in front of the Governor and ordering him to return to his room. This action by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá not only defused a dangerous situation but also opened the eyes of the Governor to the existence of a real leader among the prisoners, a leader who would act with authority and justice. Due to this action the Governor’s attitude towards ‘Abdu’l-Bahá changed. He realized that, contrary to the wild rumours circulating in ‘Akká at the time, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and His family were from a noble background, and not criminals as he had been led to believe. The Governor therefore began to act in a more humane way towards the prisoners. He eventually agreed to substitute the allotted ration of bread with a sum of money and allowed a small party of the prisoners, escorted by guards, to visit the markets of ‘Akká daily to buy their provisions. (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 47)
The Arabs called Him the ‘Lord of Generosity’:
He gave where He felt it was merited and kept a record of the recipients. He did not wish to be abused but even abuse was known to receive kindness at His generous hands, as has been shown. Small wonder that the Arabs called Him the ‘Lord of Generosity’ and Baha’is became ablaze by observing His actions of continuing kindness and loved Him as the Servant of God. (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 76)
People noticed when He contributed to various relief funds:
Already in Abdu’l-Bahá’s day relief funds had been established. He encouraged the Save the Children Fund. The Haifa Relief Fund had been created to alleviate the misery of the local population — twice the Master contributed fifty Egyptian pounds. After the first contribution His name was placed first on the contributors’ list. After receiving the second, the Military Governor, G.A. Stanton, wrote a letter of gratitude in which he stated, ‘Please accept on behalf of the committee of management, my very sincerest and most grateful thanks for this further proof of your well-known generosity and care of the poor, who will forever bless you for your liberality on their behalf.’ (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 77)
Several authors tell the story of a chambermaid, who was overcome by His generosity and wanting to do the same, gave His money away:
But some eighty quarters remained. When the Master arrived at His apartment building, He encountered the chambermaid who had previously been the happy recipient of His roses. Now He emptied all the remaining quarters into her apron. He quickly moved on. When she learned of His gifts at the Mission, she vowed she also would give this money away. (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 78)
On this occasion, the Master stopped her and asked her to hold out her apron, whereupon He filled it with all the quarters that had not been passed out at the Bowery, about $20 worth. When one of Abdul-Bahá’s retinue told the startled young woman what He had been doing, she immediately replied that, I will do the same with the money. I will give away every cent of it. (Earl Redman, Abdul-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 88)
Back in the Hotel Ansonia ‘Abdu’l-Bahá encountered a chambermaid, who had been deeply moved by His gift of roses to her; He emptied into her apron the bag containing the remainder of the coins. A Bahá’í told the chambermaid that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had been giving money to the poor at the Bowery Mission. ‘I will do the same with this money. I too will give it,’ she said. (H.M. Balyuzi, Abdu’l-Bahá – The Centre of the Covenant, p. 177)
And someone whose behaviour changed as a result of a comment He made:
On the occasion of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s first dinner in the home of Lady Bloomfield in London His hostess had prepared course after course in her eagerness to please Him. Afterwards He gently commented: ‘The food was delicious and the fruit and flowers were lovely, but would that we could share some of the courses with those poor and hungry people who have not even one.’ Thereafter the dinners were greatly simplified. Flowers and fruit remained in abundance, for those were often brought to the Master as small love tokens. (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)
His words were so penetrating that even those who were not poor were envious at `Abdu’l-Bahá’s description of the station of poverty:
His words were so penetrating that even those who were not poor became envious at `Abdu’l-Bahá’s description of the station of poverty. The report of this meeting was publicized in many newspapers. (Mahmud’s Diary, April 18, 1912)
People learned to share what they had:
There was in Baghdad a company of seven leading believers who lived in a single, small room, because they were destitute. They could hardly keep body and soul together, but they were so spiritual, so blissful, that they thought themselves in Heaven. Sometimes they would chant prayers all night long, until the day broke. Days, they would go out to work, and by nightfall one would have earned ten paras, another perhaps twenty paras, others forty or fifty. These sums would be spent for the evening meal. On a certain day one of them made twenty paras, while the rest had nothing at all. The one with the money bought some dates, and shared them with the others; that was dinner, for seven people. They were perfectly content with their frugal life, supremely happy. (Abdu’l-Bahá, Memorials of the Faithful, p. 40-41)
He never turned away anyone and His acceptance changed the people around Him:
‘That day ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had bestowed many sixpences, and people had come from the neighboring villages, bringing their children to receive the blessing from “the holy Man” — and of course the sixpences! About nine o’clock in the evening the ladies decided that no one else must see ‘Abdu’l-Bahá that night. But as they waited outside the cottage, a man came up the path, carrying one baby, and with others clinging to him. When he asked for “the holy Man”, however, he was told severely that he could not be seen, he was very tired and had gone to bed. The man sighed, as he said, “Oh, I have walked six miles from far away to see Him. I am so sorry!” ‘The hostess responded severely, feeling that the desire for sixpences had prompted the journey perhaps more than religious enthusiasm, and the man sighed more deeply than ever, and was turning away, when suddenly ‘Abdu’l-Bahá came around the corner of the house. The way in which he embraced the man and all the babies was so wonderful, that the hearts of the too careful friends melted within them, and when he at last sent away the unbidden guests, comforted, their hearts full of joy, their hands bursting with sixpences, the two friends looked at one another and said: “How wrong we were! We will never again try to manage ‘Abdu’l-Bahá!” (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 73)
He had a positive effect on Christians and Muslims alike:
In 1914 The Christian Commonwealth carried words of praise for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: ‘It is wonderful to see the venerable figure of the revered Baha’i leader passing through the narrow streets of this ancient town [Akká], where he lived for forty years as a political prisoner, and to note the deep respect with which he is saluted by the Turkish officials and the officers of the garrison from the governor downward, who visit him constantly and listen with the deepest attention to his words. “The Master” does not teach in Syria as he did in the West, but he goes about doing good, and Mohammedans and Christians alike share his benefactions. From sunrise often until midnight he works, in spite of broken health, never sparing himself if there is a wrong to be righted or a suffering to be relieved. To Christians who regard ‘Abdu’l-Bahá with impartial and sympathetic eyes, this wonderful selfless life cannot fail to recall that life whose tragic termination on Calvary the whole Christian world recalls…’ (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)
Lua Getsinger learned this lesson the hard way when ‘Abdu’l-Baha asked her to visit a friend who was poor and sick when He was too busy to go Himself:
Lua Gestinger, one of the early Bahá’ís of America, tells of an experience she had in Akká. She had made the pilgrimage to the prison-city to see ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. One day He said to her that He was too busy today to call upon a friend of His who was very poor and sick. He wished Lua to go in His place. He told her to take food to the sick man and care for him as He had been doing. Lua learned the address and immediately went to do as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had asked. She felt proud that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had trusted her with some of His own work. But soon she returned to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in a state of excitement. “Master,” she exclaimed, “You sent me to a very terrible place! I almost fainted from the awful smell, the dirty rooms, the degrading condition of that man and his house. I left quickly before I could catch some terrible disease.” Sadly and sternly, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá gazed at her. If she wanted to serve God, He told her, she would have to serve her fellow man, because in every person she should see the image and likeness of God. Then He told her to go back to the man’s house. If the house was dirty, she should clean it. If the man was dirty, she should bathe him. If he was hungry, she should feed him. He asked her not to come back until all of this was done. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has done these things many times for this man, and he told Lua Getsinger that she should be able to do them once. This is how ‘Abdu’l-Bahá taught Lua to serve her fellow man. (Howard Colby Ives, Portals to Freedom, Chapter 6)
During World War I when a blockade threatened the lives of many civilians in Haifa, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá saved them from starvation:
During the World War communication with friends and believers outside Syria was almost completely cut off, and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and his followers suffered great hardships. During those dreary years the resourcefulness and sagacious philanthropy of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá were strikingly shown. He personally organized extensive agricultural operations near Tiberias, bringing under cultivation land which had been untilled for centuries; thus he secured a great supply of wheat by means of which famine was averted, not only for the Bahá’ís, but for many of the poor of all religions, whose wants he liberally supplied. After the cessation of hostilities, a knighthood of the British Empire was conferred upon him in recognition of these services. (United States Bureau of the Census, Religious Bodies: 1936, v 11, part 1, Denominations A to J)
Provisions which He had grown, buried in under-ground pits, and otherwise stored, had been given out to the civilians of every nation living in Haifa. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá did this in a military way as an army would give rations, and deep was the gratitude of those women and children who had been saved by His power to see into the future of tragedy and woe as early as 1912, when He began the preparations for the catastrophe which was to overtake that land in 1917 and 1918. When Haifa was finally occupied by the British, reserve provisions had not yet come for the army, and someone in authority approached the Master, as already mentioned. (Lady Blomfield, The Chosen Highway)
Abdu’l-Bahá anticipated that conditions of hardship would appear with these events, and began to instruct people in the villages of Nughayb, Samrih and ‘Adasiyyih in Palestine to grow prolific quantities of corn, much of which was harvested and stored in vast ancient Roman pits. When World War I broke out, this corn was used to feed the numberless poor people of Haifa, Akká and the surrounding areas during the famine years of 1914-1918.
When the British marched into Haifa there was some difficulty about the commissariat. The officer in command went to consult the Master.
“I have corn,” was the reply.
“But for the army?” said the astonished soldier.
“I have corn for the British Army,” said ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.
He truly walked the Mystic way with practical feet. (Lady Blomfield, The Chosen Highway)
During the British occupation, large numbers of soldiers and Government officials delighted in His company:
During the period of British occupation, large numbers of soldiers and Government officials of all ranks delighted in the company of Abdu’l-Bahá, in His illuminating talks, His noble character, His genial hospitality, perfect courtesy and efforts to establish peace and prosperity throughout the world. Abdu’l-Bahá averted a famine and uplifted countless souls, and in recognition of this, on the 27 April 1920, a Knighthood of the British Empire was conferred upon Him for “services rendered unto the British government”. (Lady Blomfield, The Chosen Highway)
For his painstaking accomplishments, the British honored Him with a Knightship:
At war’s end, the British were quick to recognize His painstaking accomplishments. He was to be knighted on 27 April 1920, at the residence of the British Governor in Haifa at a ceremony held especially for Him. British and religious dignitaries came to honour Him on this auspicious occasion. His unselfish acts had won Him the love and respect of high and low alike. (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)
The British Government, with its usual gesture of appreciating a heroic act, conferred a knighthood upon ‘Abdu’l-Bahá ‘Abbas, Who accepted this honour as a courteous gift “from a just king.” (Lady Blomfield, The Chosen Highway)
Several generations later, His kindness is still remembered in practical ways:
In a final touching tribute to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s generosity this true story emerged in the 1990s, some 70 years after ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s passing. The Universal House of Justice, the supreme governing Council of the Bahá’í world community, announced a major construction project on Mount Carmel, Haifa, of buildings that would, at last, meet the commands of Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder. Accordingly, a tender was put out for Israeli construction companies to bid for, and a public call for engineers was made by the House of Justice. To everyone’s astonishment, a large number of Arab engineers emerged from the greater Haifa area offering their services. When the bemused Bahá’ís asked them why they had come forward they all said: “The Master, Abbas Effendi (‘Abdu’l-Bahá) gave our grandparents and great-grandparents money to start small businesses. Our family businesses prospered and our families were able to pay for our school and university education. We are here to give something back to Abbas Effendi.” (Extract from A Presentation on the Centenary of Abdul- Baha’s Visit to the United Kingdom in 1911. Given on 10th September 2011 in Bourne Hall, Ewell Village , Surrey, by Trevor R. J. Finch).
His Family’s Sacrifices
His family had to make many sacrifices too, so the poor could have what they needed. He did not permit his family to have luxuries:
He does not permit his family to have luxuries. (Myron Henry Phelps and Bahiyyih Khanum, Life and Teachings of Abbas Effendi)
They were taught to dress in such a way that they would be an example to the rich and an encouragement to the poor:
‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s family was taught to dress in such a way that they would be ‘an example to the rich and an encouragement to the poor.’ Available money was stretched to cover far more than the Master’s family needs. One of His daughters wore no bridal gown when she married – a clean dress sufficed. The Master was queried why He had not provided bridal clothes. With candour He replied simply, ‘My daughter is warmly clad and has all that she needs for her comfort. The poor have not. What my daughter does not need I will give to the poor rather than to her.’ (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)
Like the poor, He lived a simple life:
He himself eats but once a day, and then bread, olives, and cheese suffice him. His room is small and bare, with only a matting on the stone floor. (Myron Henry Phelps and Bahiyyih Khanum, Life and Teachings of Abbas Effendi)
He found ways to be frugal so He could spend the difference on the poor:
One day ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was going from Akká to Haifa and asked for a seat in the stage coach. The driver, surprised, said ‘Your Excellency surely wishes a private carriage.’ ‘No.’ replied the Master. While He was still in the coach in Haifa, a distressed fisherwoman came to Him; all day she had caught nothing and now must return to her hungry family. The Master gave her five francs, then turned to the driver and said: ‘You now see the reason why I would not take a private carriage. Why should I ride in luxury when so many are starving?’ (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)
He gave so much of His time to the poor, that his family only got His tired moments, so they concealed their difficulties from Him, so as not to add to His burden.
The Master hardly saw the dear child in her illness. His time was so constantly taken up by the needs of the poor that only His tired moments were spared to His own family from His incessant work for all in trouble. Indeed, my mother and sisters tried to conceal their difficulties and trials, not wishing to add to the heavy burden of others’ griefs, which were so constantly borne by Him. (Lady Blomfield, The Chosen Highway)
This kind of effort towards the poor certainly makes me think! I’m certainly not as selfless in this area as I’d like to be! What are your experiences in helping the poor? Post your comments below!