Remembering ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s call for unity, a century after World War I

November 26, 2018
This 1920 photo shows ‘Abdu’l-Baha walking from His house on Haparsim Street in Haifa. He worked tirelessly to promote peace and to tend to the safety and well-being of the people of Akka and Haifa.

BAHA'I WORLD CENTRE — Today, Baha’is commemorate the Day of the Covenant, a day dedicated to the remembrance of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s unique station in Baha’i history. A century after the end of World War I—the bloodiest conflict humanity had ever known until then—today’s remembrance also harks back to ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s urgent efforts to promote peace in the years preceding the war, His critical actions to ease suffering during the crisis, and the relevance of His call for peace today.

During His tour of Europe and North America from 1911 to 1913, ‘Abdu’l-Baha often described Europe as on the brink of war. “The time is two years hence, when only a spark will set aflame the whole of Europe,” He said in an October 1912 talk. “By 1917 kingdoms will fall and cataclysms will rock the earth.”

Newspaper reports of His talks highlighted His warnings to humanity of an impending war and the urgent need to unify:

  • “The Time Has Come, He Says, for Humanity to Hoist the Standard of the Oneness of the Human World…” –The New York Times, 21 April 1912
  • “PERSIAN PEACE APOSTLE PREDICTS WAR IN EUROPE” –Buffalo Courier, 11 September 1912
  • “Abdul Baha Urges World Peace” –The San Francisco Examiner, 25 September 1912

In July 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and the Great War began.

An article in The New York Times on 21 April 1912 describes the talks ‘Abdu’l-Baha gave while visiting the city. Slideshow
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An article in The New York Times on 21 April 1912 describes the talks ‘Abdu’l-Baha gave while visiting the city.

Noting the significance that ‘Abdu’l-Baha gave to the issue of peace, Century of Light, a publication commissioned in 2001 by the Universal House of Justice, states: “From the beginning, ‘Abdu’l Bahá took keen interest in efforts to bring into existence a new international order. It is significant, for example, that His early public references in North America to the purpose of His visit there placed particular emphasis on the invitation of the organizing committee of the Lake Mohonk Peace Conference for Him to address this international gathering.... Beyond this, the list of influential persons with whom the Master spent patient hours in both North America and Europe—particularly individuals struggling to promote the goal of world peace and humanitarianism—reflects His awareness of the responsibility the Cause has to humanity at large.”

Having raised the warning and urged the world to work for peace, ‘Abdu’l-Baha returned on 5 December 1913 to Haifa, then part of the Ottoman Empire. Aware of the coming war, He took steps to protect the Baha’i community under His stewardship and to avert a famine in the region. One of His first decisions upon returning to the Holy Land was to send home all the Baha’is who were visiting from abroad.

Less than a year later, war broke out in Europe. As the Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary, the Allied Powers—including France, Britain, and eventually the United States—formed a strict blockade around Haifa. Communication and travel in and out of the area were almost impossible. Haifa and Akka were swept into the hysteria of war.

To protect the resident Baha’is of Haifa and Akka from danger, ‘Abdu’l-Baha decided to move them to a nearby Druze village called Abu-Sinan, while He remained in Akka with only one other Baha’i. However, bombardment by the Allied forces necessitated that He eventually join the other Baha’is in the village; at one point, a shell landed, but did not explode, in the Ridvan Garden near Akka. ‘Abdu’l Baha had the Baha’is in Abu-Sinan establish a dispensary and a small school for the area’s children.

‘Abdu’l-Baha also intensified efforts to protect the surrounding populations. He directed Baha’i farmers in the Jordan River Valley to increase their harvest yields and store extra grain in anticipation of a future shortage. After the war broke out and food supplies became scarce, He ensured that wheat would be distributed throughout the region. In July 1917, for example, He visited one farm in Adasiyyih, in present-day Jordan, for 15 days during the wheat and barley harvest. He had the surplus carried by camel to the famine-stricken Akka-Haifa area.

“Agony filled (‘Abdu’l-Baha’s) soul at the spectacle of human slaughter precipitated through humanity’s failure to respond to the summons He had issued, or to heed the warnings He had given.”

Shoghi Effendi

Throughout His ministry as the head of the Baha’i Faith, from Baha’u’llah’s ascension in 1892 to His own passing in 1921, ‘Abdu’l-Baha was in constant correspondence with Baha’is around the world. But during the war, His contacts with those outside the Holy Land were severely restricted.

Still, during this time, ‘Abdu’l-Baha took on two of His well-known works: Memorials of the Faithful and Tablets of the Divine Plan. The first was the publication of a series of talks He delivered during the war, eulogizing 79 heroic Baha’is. The latter was a series of letters, written in 1916 and 1917, that laid the foundation for the global spread of the Baha’i Faith.

Eventually, during the war, ‘Abdu’l-Baha resumed weekly gatherings in His home, warmly greeting visitors and meeting with people from all segments of society, including Ottoman, British, German, and other military and government figures.

“Agony filled His soul at the spectacle of human slaughter precipitated through humanity’s failure to respond to the summons He had issued, or to heed the warnings He had given,” Shoghi Effendi later wrote about ‘Abdu’l-Baha during this time in God Passes By.

Indian lancers march through Haifa after it was captured from the Ottomans in September 1918 (Credit: British War Museum, accessed through Wikimedia Commons). Slideshow
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Indian lancers march through Haifa after it was captured from the Ottomans in September 1918 (Credit: British War Museum, accessed through Wikimedia Commons).

Following Haifa’s liberation on 23 September 1918, the city was in a frenzy. ‘Abdu’l-Baha maintained an atmosphere of calm and dignity as He received a continual flow of visitors including generals, officials, soldiers, and civilians. News of His safety gave relief to Baha’is around the world. With the end of the war, ‘Abdu’l-Baha would soon meet many more Baha’is and other visitors from abroad as the doors to that sacred land were open again.

While Europe was jubilant with the end of the Great War and a world-embracing institution was taking form in the League of Nations, ‘Abdu’l-Baha wrote in January 1920:

“The ills from which the world now suffers will multiply; the gloom which envelops it will deepen. The Balkans will remain discontented. Its restlessness will increase. The vanquished Powers will continue to agitate. They will resort to every measure that may rekindle the flame of war.”

Conscious of the threat of yet another war, ‘Abdu’l-Baha showed great interest in movements working for peace. In 1919, for example, He corresponded with the Central Organization for a Durable Peace at The Hague, which had written to Him three years earlier. In a message, referred to as the Tablet to The Hague, ‘Abdu’l-Baha, while praising the organization, was also candid in stating that peace would require a profound transformation in human consciousness and a commitment to the spiritual truths enunciated by Baha’u’llah.

“At present Universal Peace is a matter of great importance, but unity of conscience is essential, so that the foundation of this matter may become secure, its establishment firm and its edifice strong,” ‘Abdu’l-Baha wrote in that letter. “Today nothing but the power of the Word of God which encompasses the realities of things can bring the thoughts, the minds, the hearts and the spirits under the shade of one Tree.”

In His will, Baha’u’llah appointed His oldest son, ‘Abdu’l-Baha, as the authorized interpreter of His teachings and head of the Baha’i Faith. Upholding unity as the fundamental principle of His teachings, Baha’u’llah established a Covenant through which His religion would not split into sects after His passing. Thus, Baha’u’llah instructed His followers to turn to ‘Abdu’l-Baha not only as the authorized interpreter of the Baha’i writings but also as the perfect exemplar of the Faith’s spirit and teachings.