Jináb-i-Mírzá Ismá’íl, a believer present in that last audience with Bahá’u’lláh, has recorded: “Tears flowed from my eyes and I was overcome with feelings of grief and sorrow after hearing these words. At this moment the Blessed Perfection bade me come close to Him, and I obeyed. Using a handkerchief which was in His hand, Bahá’u’lláh wiped the tears from my cheeks. As He did so, the words of Isaiah [25:8], ‘and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces…’, involuntarily came to my mind.” (‘Alí-Akbar Furútan, Stories of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 109)
Considering all that had happened in the 48 years beginning with the declaration of the Báb in 1844, Bahá’u’lláh’s passing on May 29, 1892 at about 3:00 A.M. might seem anticlimactic. He died quietly at the age of 75, still marginally a prisoner but permitted to live outside the walls of Akká in a mansion known as Bahjí. The relative tranquility of His final days on Earth stand in marked contrast to the tumult that had surrounded Him for much of His life, yet it proved to be merely the calm before another storm for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, His oldest son and appointed successor.
Even a quick review of Bahá’u’lláh’s life shows Him to be remarkable. Born to a noble family in Persia, He might have lived a life of relative ease. He was generally held to be a wise and good man whose charity had earned Him the nickname “Father of the poor.” But when word of the Báb reached Him, He embraced the new religion and became one of its staunchest supporters, jeopardizing everything He had. Over the next few years He was briefly imprisoned twice, tortured on one occasion and narrowly escaped an official death sentence when Muhammád Sháh passed away before issuing the order.
Bahá’u’lláh’s imprisonment in August, 1852 on trumped-up charges connected with an attempt by two deranged Bábís to assassinate Násiri’d-Dín Sháh set the stage for the rest of His life. In that prison (Síyáh-Chál, literally “the Black Pit”) He experienced a revelation from God telling Him that He was the Promised One whose coming the Báb had foretold. This revelation was born while He was surrounded by the worst of criminals and weighed down by a chain so heavy that He would bear scars from it for the rest of His life. A far cry from the life He had until that time known! And it was just the beginning.
Released from prison in November, Bahá’u’lláh was stripped of wealth and property and banished to Baghdád, the first of four banishments He would suffer. In each place to which He was sent, His wisdom and character earned Him the admiration of people from all walks of life, but in each case the authorities, fearful of His influence, sent Him further into exile. Thus He was moved from Baghdád to Constantinople, Adrianople, and finally the prison city of Akká in the Holy Land. While the authorities plotted to be rid of Him, His own half-brother, Mirzá Yahyá, who the Báb had appointed as head of the Faith until the Promised One arose, grew increasingly jealous of Bahá’u’lláh’s influence among the Bábís. Yahyá attempted to claim the station of the Promised One for Himself and plotted Bahá’u’lláh’s death, once smearing poison on His teacup. Bahá’u’lláh nearly died, and suffered from a hand tremor for the rest of his life.
Although despised and threatened on all sides, He never once ceased to proclaim the message God had entrusted to Him. His Writings amount to some 100 volumes and were addressed to kings and commoners, friends and enemies, believers and deniers. For 40 years He proclaimed this Message in words such as these:
This is the Day in which God’s most excellent favors have been poured out upon men, the Day in which His most mighty grace hath been infused into all created things. It is incumbent upon all the peoples of the world to reconcile their differences, and, with perfect unity and peace, abide beneath the shadow of the Tree of His care and loving-kindness. It behoveth them to cleave to whatsoever will, in this Day, be conducive to the exaltation of their stations, and to the promotion of their best interests…. Beseech ye the one true God to grant that all men may be graciously assisted to fulfil that which is acceptable in Our sight. Soon will the present-day order be rolled up, and a new one spread out in its stead. Verily, thy Lord speaketh the truth, and is the Knower of things unseen.
(Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, IV, p. 6-7)
What are we, over a century after His death, to make of all this? We live in an increasingly cynical age, an age that has seen faith stand in opposition to reason while self-proclaimed prophets lead scores of followers to pointless deaths and religious fanaticism fuels acts of terrorism. Were not the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh just more of the same?
Clearly not. Both gave up everything to proclaim their Messages. They gained nothing in this world, nor could they have hoped to gain anything. From the start they were surrounded by bitter enemies whose one object was to destroy them. They were both known for their knowledge, wisdom and kindness. They asked nothing for themselves while exhorting their followers to the highest standards of belief and behavior, standards they upheld in their own lives. Indeed, the only true parallel in history to the Báb’s mission is that of Jesus, while Bahá’u’lláh’s mission stands unparalleled. Their followers suffered every manner of persecution and died by the thousands at the hands of their oppressors even though they didn’t oppose either the government or the clergy. Rather, Bahá’u’lláh made obedience to the government a requirement for His followers. Thus these persecutions and deaths were not akin to the armed standoffs and suicide pacts we’ve seen in this century. They are, rather, akin to the Roman persecution of the early Christian community.
Moreover, consider the sheer influence wielded by two men who were stripped of position and possesions, whose deaths were sought by the most powerful people of their time and place, and whose claims were rejected by the majority of the people. Think of all the self-proclaimed prophets who have arisen since that time. Where are they now? Where are their followers? What good have they done in the world? Meanwhile, Bahá’u’lláh has over six million followers around the world, drawn from every national, racial, ethnic and religious background. His religion is among the fastest-growing in the world and His teachings are being put into practice not only by Bahá’ís, but by humanity generally. The world is evolving rapidly toward that state of unity that He promised, whether it realizes it or not, whether it wants to or not. Jim Jones, David Koresh and their ilk are mere footnotes to history, but Bahá’u’lláh is everywhere.
I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to stand in Bahá’u’lláh’s presence, to hear His voice, to ask Him a question. There are many stories of such encounters. Some people recount the awe they felt when they were near Him, others how he intuitively knew what was on their minds. The stories that tend to pop into my mind, though, are the ones that show His humor and His love for His followers, such as this one about a young boy who got caught with his hand in the cookie jar, so to speak:
Áqá Muhammad-i-Tabrízí has recounted how, as a child of four or five, he would go with his family to the Mansion of Bahjí each Friday, as was customary among the believers at that time, to attain the presence of the Blessed Beauty. They would stay all day, using the rooms on the lower floor of the Mansion.
During one of these visits the grown-ups were resting in their rooms at noontime; as it was a warm day, he left his room and wandered to the upper floor of the Mansion where he entered the large hall. Ambling about he eventually came to the room where food was stored, and here he noticed a bag filled with sugar. Instinctively he took a handful, put it in his mouth, then filled both hands before leaving the storeroom. Back in the hall, he froze in his tracks upon seeing the Blessed Beauty pacing to and fro there. Slowly and in a gentle manner, Bahá’u’lláh came towards him, cast a loving glance at his hands and then led the little boy towards a large table in the middle of the hall. Picking up a plate of candies, He offered one to the child who, with closed fist, accepted it. “It seems you like sweets,” Bahá’u’lláh said. “Eat well! Goodbye. And may God protect you.”
(‘Alí-Akbar Furútan, Stories of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 69-70)
God singled out Bahá’u’lláh to be the revealer of His names and attributes, to be the channel through which the Word was transmitted to us. For this He became the object of the hatred, jealousy, and wrath of kings and their ministers, of priests and even of some of His own family. For forty years He suffered under their hatred, yet love and laughter remained two of His most precious gifts to humanity. I find great comfort in that.
What’s your favorite memory of this Holy Day? Post your comments here: