'Abdu'l-Baha's legacy to Egypt recalled, 100 years on

April 20, 2011
Place Mohammed Ali, Alexandria, pictured in a postcard from the period that 'Abdu'l-Baha stayed in the Egyptian city. Today the square is known as Midan Tahrir.

COLLEGE PARK, MARYLAND, United States — As the open letter from the Baha'is of Egypt, calling for a national conversation about the future of their country, begins to generate widespread interest, similar discussions among Egyptians 100 years ago have been vividly brought to life in a new book.

In Abbas Effendi – recently released by Al-Kamel publishers in Beirut – University of Maryland Professor Suheil Bushrui explores in particular the contribution made by 'Abdu'l-Baha Abbas Effendi, eldest son of Baha'u'llah. The book is available in a printed edition and also for download from the Baha'i Faith in Egypt blog.

It is the first time that 'Abdu'l-Baha's story has been told for a modern Arabic-speaking readership, largely unaware of His legacy to their society.

During His stay in Alexandria, between September 1910 and August 1911, 'Abdu'l-Baha conversed with Egyptians from all walks of life about the fundamental principles required for the building of a peaceful and prosperous society.

"I thought it was important to present 'Abdu'l-Baha, not necessarily as a religious leader," says Professor Bushrui, "but more as a great mind who was able to convey an understanding of the importance of religion at a time when materialistic civilization was prevailing in Europe and America, and the Muslim world was overcome with political and other ambitions."

"I have to say – even for me as a lifelong Baha'i – through the writing of this book I have come to be far more aware of the unique personality of 'Abdu'l-Baha and His immense achievement in promoting cultural and religious dialogue between the worlds of the East and the West," says Professor Bushrui.

The book has already garnered high praise from contemporary Arab thinkers, whose appreciation of 'Abdu'l-Baha echoes that of their counterparts a century ago.

The cover of Suheil Bushrui's book, titled "Abbas Effendi", depicting a historic view of Alexandria. Slideshow
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The cover of Suheil Bushrui's book, titled "Abbas Effendi", depicting a historic view of Alexandria.

Internationally-recognized Middle East expert Edmund Ghareeb has described the book as "a pioneering and highly informative work."

"Abbas Effendi is a superbly careful and informative piece of scholarship," wrote Dr. Ghareeb, "which makes a major contribution to knowledge of the Middle East at a crucial period of its modern history, and adds considerably to our knowledge of this unique reformer..."

In a review, published in the Lebanese daily newspaper As-Safir, author Mahmud Shurayh remarked how 'Abdu'l-Baha "found no embarrassment in teaching the messages of Christ and Muhammad in the Jewish synagogues, the message of Muhammad in Christian churches and the message of religion in atheist assemblies, because He saw in the union of east and west a portal to a new world where justice, unity and peace reign."

The distinguished Lebanese poet Henri Zoghaib commented that 'Abdu'l-Baha was the first to initiate a serious dialogue among religions.

"With this book..." wrote Mr. Zoghaib, "I discovered the nature of the teachings that 'Abdu'l-Baha had disseminated concerning the oneness of east and west, and of His message calling for the oneness of religions."

Prominent admirers

At the age of 66 - and free to travel after a lifetime spent as a prisoner and exile - 'Abdu'l-Baha arrived in Egypt for one month's rest, but stayed for an entire year because of concerns for His health. See news.bahai.org/story/792

Yet He believed He had a particular mission to accomplish in Egypt, notes Professor Bushrui.

"Firstly, to revive the truth and purity of religious faith – whether Muslim or Christian – and, secondly, to bring East and West together."

Numerous prominent Egyptians, including the last Khedive of Egypt and Sudan – Abbas Hilmi Pasha – exhibited particular reverence towards the Head of the Baha'i Faith.

"The jurist and scholar Muhammad Abduh also admired 'Abdu'l-Baha greatly and wrote Him a letter," recounts Professor Bushrui. "When you read it, you can see it's from someone who recognized that 'Abdu'l-Baha had a special divine light in his heart and mind."

May Rihani – niece of Ameen Rihani, the founding father of Arab-American literature and another of 'Abdu'l-Baha's admirers – has acclaimed the book, Abbas Effendi, as a "gift to humanity."

"We need 'Abdu'l-Baha's voice more than ever before in these present turbulent times of religious fanaticism, misunderstandings among the cultures of the world, and an easy readiness for confrontation," says Ms. Rihani, who is the Senior Vice President and Director of the Global Learning Group at the Academy for Educational Development, based in Washington D.C.

A century later, echoes of 'Abdu'l-Baha's voice can be heard throughout the open letter from today's Egyptian Baha'is to their fellow citizens.

The letter states that acceptance of the principle of the oneness of humanity "calls for a profound re-examination of each or our own attitudes, values and relationships with others – ultimately, for a transformation in the human heart."