'Abdu'l-Bahá: the Center of the Covenant
On November 29, 1921, ten thousand people--Jews, Christians, and Muslims from all persuasions and denominations--gathered on Mount Carmel in the Holy Land to mourn the passing of One who was eulogized as the essence of "Virtue and Wisdom, of Knowledge and Generosity."1 On that occasion, `Abdu'l-Bahá--Bahá'u'lláh's Son and chosen successor--was described by a Jewish leader as a "living example of self-sacrifice," by a Christian orator as One who led humanity to the "Way of Truth," and by a prominent Muslim leader as a "pillar of peace" and the embodiment of "glory and greatness."2 His funeral, according to a Western observer, brought together a great throng "sorrowing for His death, but rejoicing also for His life." 3
Throughout the Occident and the Orient, `Abdu'l-Bahá was known as an ambassador of peace, a champion of justice, and the leading exponent of a new Faith. Through a series of epoch-making travels across North America and Europe, `Abdu'l-Bahá--by word and example--proclaimed with persuasiveness and force the essential principles of His Father's religion. Affirming that "Love is the most great law" that is the foundation of "true civilization," and that the "supreme need of humanity is cooperation and reciprocity" among all its peoples, `Abdu'l-Bahá reached out to leaders and the meek alike, to every soul who crossed His path.4,5
An American commentator wrote,
He found a large and sympathetic audience waiting to greet Him personally and to receive from His own lips His loving and spiritual message.... Beyond the words spoken there was something indescribable in His personality that impressed profoundly all who came into His presence. The dome-like head, the patriarchal beard, the eyes that seemed to have looked beyond the reach of time and sense, the soft yet clearly penetrating voice, the translucent humility, the never failing love,--but above all, the sense of power mingled with gentleness that invested His whole being with a rare majesty of spiritual exaltation that both set Him apart, and yet brought Him near to the lowliest soul,--it was all this, and much more that can never be defined, that have left with His many ... friends, memories that are ineffaceable and unspeakably precious. 6
`Abdu'l-Bahá in Paris in 1912.
Yet, however magnetic His personality or penetrating His insights into the human condition, such characteristics cannot adequately capture `Abdu'l-Bahá's unique station in religious history. In the words of Bahá'u'lláh Himself, `Abdu'l-Bahá was the "Trust of God," "a shelter for all mankind," "the most great Favor," and God's "ancient and immutable Mystery."7 The Bahá'í writings further affirm that "in the person of `Abdu'l-Bahá the incompatible characteristics of a human nature and superhuman knowledge and perfection have been blended and are completely harmonized."8
The question of religious succession has been crucial to all faiths. Failure to resolve this question has inevitably led to acrimony and division. The ambiguity surrounding the true successors of Jesus and Muhammad, for example, led to differing interpretations of sacred scripture and deep discord within both Christianity and Islam. However, Bahá'u'lláh prevented schism and established an unassailable foundation for His Faith through the provision of His will and testament, entitled "The Book of My Covenant." He wrote: "When the ocean of My presence hath ebbed and the Book of My Revelation is ended, turn your faces toward Him Whom God hath purposed, Who hast branched from this Ancient Root. The object of this sacred verse is none other except the Most Mighty Branch [`Abdu'l-Bahá]."9
`Abdu'l-Bahá as a young man.
As the authorized interpreter of Bahá'u'lláh's teachings, `Abdu'l-Bahá became the "living mouth of the Book, the expounder of the Word."11 Without `Abdu'l-Bahá, the enormous creative power of Bahá'u'lláh's revelation could not have been transmitted to humanity, nor its import fully comprehended. He elucidated the teachings of His Father's Faith, amplified its doctrines, and delineated the central features of its administrative institutions. He was the unerring guide and architect of a rapidly expanding Bahá'í community. In addition, Bahá'u'lláh vested in `Abdu'l-Bahá "the virtues of perfection in personal and social behavior, that humanity may have an enduring model to emulate."12 As the perfect Exemplar of Bahá'u'lláh's teachings and the Pivot of His Covenant, `Abdu'l-Bahá became "the incorruptible medium for applying the Word to practical measures for the raising up of a new civilization." 13
In retrospect, it became clear that Bahá'u'lláh had carefully prepared `Abdu'l-Bahá to succeed Him. He was born on May 23, 1844, the very night that the Báb had declared the beginning of a new religious cycle in history. As a child, He suffered along with His Father during the persecutions against the Bábis. `Abdu'l-Bahá was eight years old when Bahá'u'lláh was first imprisoned for His role as a leading exponent and defender of the Bábi Faith. He accompanied Bahá'u'lláh throughout His long exile from Persia to the capital of the Ottoman empire, and ultimately, to Palestine. As He grew older, `Abdu'l-Bahá became His Father's closest companion and emerged as His deputy, shield, and principal representative to the political and religious leaders of the day. `Abdu'l-Bahá's extraordinary demonstration of leadership, knowledge, and service brought great prestige to the exiled Bahá'í community. He assumed His role as the Head of the Bahá'í Faith following Bahá'u'lláh's passing in May 1892.
In 1911, after more than four decades of imprisonment and suffering, `Abdu'l-Bahá journeyed to the West and presented with brilliant simplicity, to high and low alike, Bahá'u'lláh's prescription for the moral and spiritual renewal of society. This "Call of God," `Abdu'l-Bahá stated, "...breathed a new life into the body of mankind, and infused a new spirit into the whole creation. It is for this reason that the world hath been moved to its depths, and the hearts and consciences of men been quickened. Erelong the evidences of this regeneration will be revealed, and the fast asleep will be awakened."14
Among the vital truths that `Abdu'l-Bahá tirelessly proclaimed to leaders of thought as well as countless groups and masses at large were: "The independent search after truth, unfettered by superstition or tradition; the oneness of the entire human race, the pivotal principle and fundamental doctrine of the Faith; the basic unity of all religions; the condemnation of all forms of prejudice, whether religious, racial, class or national; the harmony which must exist between religion and science; the equality of men and women, the two wings on which the bird of humankind is able to soar; the introduction of compulsory education; the adoption of a universal auxiliary language; the abolition of the extremes of wealth and poverty; the institution of a world tribunal for the adjudication of disputes between nations; the exaltation of work, performed in the spirit of service, to the rank of worship; the glorification of justice as the ruling principle in human society, and of religion as a bulwark for the protection of all peoples and nations; and the establishment of a permanent and universal peace as the supreme goal of all mankind."15
`Abdu'l-Bahá in Germany, 1913.
My name is `Abdu'l-Bahá [literally, Servant of Baha]. My qualification is `Abdu'l-Bahá. My reality is `Abdu'l-Bahá. My praise is `Abdu'l-Bahá. Thraldom to the Blessed Perfection [Bahá'u'lláh] is my glorious and refulgent diadem, and servitude to all the human race my perpetual religion... No name, no title, no mention, no commendation have I, nor will ever have, except `Abdu'l-Bahá. This is my longing. This is my greatest yearning. This is my eternal life. This is my everlasting glory.17