Bahai News - A Baha'i Pontiff in the Making
[This polemical article, published in what was originally a
missionary-oriented journal, is sufficiently preconceived and dismissive
that it scarcely warrants an explanatory note. However, it is useful in
that includes a fairly extended glimpse of Shoghi Effendi through the eyes
of a non-Baha'iand hostileobserver. Small font sizes of certain
text in original.]
A BAHA'I PONTIFF IN THE MAKING
By A. E. Suthers
Ohio Wesleyan University
Moslem World, Volume 25, January 1935
[online version provided by Robert Stauffer, 1998]
The coming of an Imam or Mahdi is the living hope of Islam. Ever since
the fateful battle of Kerbela (680) which witnessed the defeat of the
grandson of the Prophet by the hosts of the orthodox, and the annihilation
of his gallant but ill-starred band, the febrile imagination of many
sections of the Islamic world has kindled to the expectation of one to
come, a sort of returning Elijah, under whose divine guidance the faith
would be reformed toward a uniform and more or less primitive orthodoxy,
and the world itself brought under the dominion of the Prophet. The hope
has been more fervent among the Shiahs, the partisans of Ali, than among
Just how or when the belief arose is not clear. The title appears to have
been given to Ali's son Mohammed, but there is little ground for supposing
that the prophet himself contemplated the appearance of a Mahdi, not
withstanding the fact that prophecies of such a personage were afterwards
attributed to him. Unquestionably it is the expression of a deep-rooted
desire of the human heart, not peculiar to Islam alone, but to be found
among other religions of the world, breaking out in different ages and
among different peoples, now as a Messianic hope, now as an Adventist
doctrine, and anon as a theory of incantations or avatars. It
must be remembered too, that this foundling faith with its infancy was
rocked in the cradle of Christianity by the hand of Judaism, and in its
adolescence it both wooed and fought with amazing audacity now one, now
the other. Geographical propinquity meant constant commercial contacts,
as the Persian Gulf-Palmyra-Tyre and the Red Sea-Mecca-Tyre caravan routes
attest. "The history of earliest commerce is the history of incense, and
the land of incense was Arabia." And commercial contact of any dura-
tion at all always means cultural contagion. It would be strange if
this hope, which at times beat so ardently in the breasts of neighbor-Jew
and neighbor-Christian, had not found a response in the heart of the
Moslem. In the third place and perhaps this is as significant a
factor as any the formative era of Islam was characterized by
disorder, confusion, and civil war. Especially was that true in respect
to Persia, whose people were more conquered by the new faith than
converted to it, and into whose tragic history was written a new chapter
when the Abbasids unfurled their black standard in Khorasan, and the
surveillance of the Omayyads changed to bloody suppression. There could
be but one issue to this, an issue psychologically predictable an
undaunted confidence, if somewhat unsound, in a Deliverer to come, an
expectation which heightened with their own weakness. To the Jew in
exile, more than a thousand years before, the vision was familiar, to
which fancy the infant Church under the persecution of a Nero, a
Domitian, a Decius, a Diocletian also fell heir. In an apocalyptic
atmosphere, a Messiah becomes inevitable, imperative. Between Palestine
and Persia, however, there was a difference: with the former, the moral
implications of the forces at work were consistently clear, and one's
ethical perspective as to truth and duty was never distorted either by
fanaticism or fear. In the history of neither Judaism nor Christianity
can one parallel taqiyya that ethical toboggan slide
countenanced by the Shiahs, and to which all the sects which have sprung
from that faith have had recourse.
With Persia steeped in Imamism and the equally heady principles of
Sufism it was only to be anticipated that aspirants would be
forthcoming, who would claim in themselves the fulfillment of the national
expectancy. Such a one was the mystic dreamer, Mirza Ali Mohammed, who as
a young man of four and twenty declared himself to be the
1. A study of the life of Mary Baker Eddy and of
the history of the Christian Science movement furnishes interesting data
of the encroachment of this perversion upon the confines of Christianity,
data which suggest too its fearful moral consequences.
Taqiyya = dissimulation
2. It will be recalled that the Ahmadiya movement of the Punjab sprang
from a soil impregnated with Mahdism and Sufism.
revelation of God, himself the Primal Will, the Bab or "door" to life
eternal, who was to supercede all previous prophets, including Jesus and
Mohammed, as Babism, of which he was the author, was destined to eclipse
Islam. He was a pathetic figure whose life was quickly cut short by a
firing squad, but whose delusion that act failed to frighten from the
Though he claimed to be God, Mirza Mohammed yet held no revelation was
final, that another dispensation building upon him would yet be founded
salvo jure and apologia for the next saviour. And
unerringly he came (by a delayed and circuitous route but ultimately
arriving) in the person of Mirza Hussayn Ali of Teheran, alias Baha'u'llah
who, from the day of his "issuing forth" until his death at Akka was
accorded increasing recognition by Babists and others, particularly
visionary enthusiasts and speculative mystics as the one foretold, "whom
God will manifest." The principle of succession was not long in resolving
itself, and the Elisha who seized the mantle of this departing Elijah was
his eldest son 'Abdu'l-Baha, accepted by the faithful as the Exemplar and
Interpreter of the faith now founded.
"Baha'u'llah ascended (i.e., passed from this world)
in 1892, leaving a Testament naming 'Abdu'l-Baha as the Head of
His Cause, the Interpreter of His Teachings and the Promulgator of His
Faith. The providential spirit guiding and protecting the Baha'i cause
from its beginning, centered thereafter in 'Abdu'l-Baha."
So runs the record. This last-named leader "served as the
witness and proof of Baha'u'llah," unifying the followers and organising
the faith into a system, albeit not a very lucid or original one, and
"exploring the fundamental problems of religion" before audiences in
America and Europe in an accommodating and reconciliatory fashion. As
for the Scriptures that wrote themselves off from his pen we are assured
"no such source of education in the whole meaning of
the word exists in the modern world outside the writings of 'Abdu'l-Baha.
In these writings the ideals of Christian, Jew, and other religionists,
3. The Baha'i World, 1926-1928, p. 5
of philosopher and scientist, of economist and reformer
are abundantly realised."
Time passed, and with it 'Abdu'l-Baha, who died November 28, 1921, after
committing the future of the Cause to his eldest grandson Shoghi Effendi.
It was Sunday noon when the automobile from Jerusalem halted its dusty
trail in the heart of Haifa. A hotel, a bath, a lunch, and I was ready
for a stroll. Knowing something of the significance of Haifa to the
Bahaists, my steps turned to the little Persian colony grouped near
the home of the leader of the sect. The Guardian of the Cause was
engaged, I was told, and would see me later, say, in an hour. In the
meantime, would I like to visit some of the sacred places at hand? It
was his secretary and cousin who was speaking. I would, and so together
we set out up the slope of Carmel to the garden-tomb of the Bab (executed
in Tabriz in 1850, but later exhumed and re-interred, so his followers
asservate, at Haifa), and of 'Abdu'l-Baha. The place was undeniably
beautiful, from the height of which one could view the long street
stretching off across the German colony, glittering white in the
Mediterranean sunlight, and beyond the blue waters of the Bay.
The conversation was casual, but a little sifting elicited the statement
from my companion that he was a graduate of the American University of
Beirut and had studied, principally Economics and Law, at the University
The slow progress of the faith discouraged him.
"We find youth to be not interested at present in true religion (i.e.,
Bahaism). It is a discouraging aspect of the age. Our youth today are
making two blunders: they think it necessary to imitate the West in
everything, and believing the West to be unspiritual they think it
fitting to become irreligious to be in fashion."
4. According to the will of Baha'u'llah, a younger
son Mohammed Ali was to succeed 'Abdu'l-Baha, but the last-named
disregarded this provision and appointed his own grandson, then
twenty-five years of age. Mohammed Ali did not appear to have the
influence behind him to contest the nomination.
But there was nothing, I was assured, to prevent a man from being a
Moslem and a Bahaist at the same time "provided he accepts the status
of Baha'u'llah as the divine Son of God and the fullest and final
revelation of God" - rather high for an initial hurdle, I
thought. Evidently, notwithstanding profuse professions of catholicity
and tolerance there was encysted in the faith the seed of bigotry.
He had said he had been in the United States, so I enquired of him what
he found the attitude of the Christian West to be as he traveled through
"I found the Unitarian Church, the Ethical Culture Society, and the
liberal leaders of various denominations most appreciative, but the
more orthodox bodies very unsympathetic. With the Roman Church of
course we had no point of contact" naturally, I reflected,
since the leader of Bahaism demanded of the Pope of Rome that the latter
acknowledge his priority as the absolute and universal Lord of mankind.
For Baha'u'llah, following, consciously or otherwise, the precedent of
Mohammed, who in the flush of his success subpoenaed the potentates of
Rome, Persia, Byzantium, and Egypt to accept his mission, issued. Likewise
his mandamus to the Christian rulers of the earth.
We returned to the spacious home of Shoghi Effendi. He met us a
man of medium height, of quiet demeanor, and dressed in European attire.
There seemed to be nothing markedly spiritual in that handsome face, and
when he spoke one was more conscious of his courtesy and reserve than of
any profundity in his utterances. To play the role of prophet, and much
more to pose as God, is a sobering undertaking. Claim infallibility, and
the dictates of discretion will prescribe a mystifying silence, and if to
infallibility is added impeccability, one can hardly afford
to be original or enterprising.
After a few polite preliminaries, and attendant led us to a waiting
automobile into which we entered.
5. It is alleged by some that the Bahaists of Syria
are following in the footsteps of the Shiahs in their regard for Ali, and
say that Shoghi Effendi is sinless.
A sea breeze laden with the odor of the ocean; ten miles of hard, smooth
sand pounded by the white-reefed rollers to the firmness of macadam over
which we rolled in a comfortable car it is the road to Akka around
the bay of Haifa. And at the end of the journey two miles beyond the
town, the garden-tomb of Baha'u'llah, - red geraniums in quantity, red
balsams by the hundreds, red coral plants (ruselia superba) and red paths
of broken pottery set in a garden of green sward, relieved by white bushes
of the fragrant jasmine, and the equally redolent oleander it was a
charming scene. Within, the tomb was a combination of hot-house and
sanctuary. The grave of the leader, one which stood some golden-branched
candlesticks, an urn of flowers, the gift of American adherents, and a
few expensive and ornate vases, lay in a small chamber to the right. The
main room was in the form of a square, perhaps thirty feet on the side
with a large alcove at one end, adjoining the modest mausoleum designed
with alter- effect. In one corner of the room, attached to the wall, was
a lamp, the gift of Stuttgart believers. The centre of the room was a
garden of green plants and trees, not flowers, about fifteen feet square,
rendered extremely beautiful by a verdant column of trailing asparagus in
heavy foliage which first reached to and then dropped from the roof.
From the shrine, where by this time a group of a dozen pilgrims had
gathered, who bowed and
bowed and bowed obsequiously to this youthful, western-educated,
speaking leader of the sect whenever he spoke to, looked at, or passed
them by, we repaired to
the garden of Baha'u'llah, where the dead promoter was wont to rest and
meditate, read and
write, after the ban of his incarceration was lifted. It too was not
without its beauty, thanks to
the assiduous care of a young Persian Zoroastrian. The garden, like the
other, a blazing glory of
red, was in reality a small island. From the central bed fifty yards in
length, rose a half dozen
giant trees like conifers, which, I was informed, had been brought as
seeds from Egypt, in the
days of Baha'u'llah.
Ultimately we returned to the car upon the beach, and speeding back to
Haifa I put some
questions to my kind host.
"You are a university man?"
"Yes, I am a graduate of the American University of Beirut, and I spent
also a year and a half at
Oxford studying political economy."
"Did you ever take up psychology?"
"No! I am not interested in abstract thought."
An illuminating admission, I thought, explaining in part the paradox of
his own person, that he
could hold essentially abstract notions about divine effulgences to the
extent of impersonating
divinity without sensing either its futility or its humor. One would
not expect specialization in
political economy or, as in the case of his assistant and cousin, Ruhi
Afnan, law, to be
particularly pertinent in preparing one for a hypostalic
role. "Religion" he
added, "is to be a social idea."
I asked if he did not think a full-rounded and efficacious religion
should speak with confidence
concerning sin, forgiveness, God, immortality, and was immediately
assured that Bahaism does
all of that that it differs from other faiths not in fundamental
principles, for therein it
agrees with all, but in its application of certain social laws, which
were divinely revealed to
Baha'u'llah, thereby placing him on a different and unique pedestal
among God's prophets, as the
last to come. This revelation he has sent down in a book in Arabic, not
yet translated, "because
the time is not yet ripe, the world is not yet ready to receive it.
When it is translated, which
will be after the economic and spiritual catastrophe foretold by
Baha'u'llah to occur within a
6. Not infrequently, writers on Indian affairs,
brought into personal
contact with Mahatma Gandhi confess surprise and regret that one who is
prescribe for India's millions a new economic and political regime,
should entertain a contempt
for books, especially such as would inform him on the problems arising
in those particular
fields, and of the experience of the race in endeavoring to solve those
problems. For example,
one well-informed critic writing on M. K. Gandhi as a Factor in
Indian Politics, (F.G.
Pratt in Political India: Oxford University Press, 1932, pp.206-7),
says: "His habit from
quite an early period of his life has been to rely on what he describes
as the inner light or the
inner vision, for the solution of mental and spiritual problems….and
this manner of thinking
has given him a supreme self-confidence which has sometimes been to him
a tower of strength
and sometimes a snare and a pitfall. He distrusted book-knowledge, so
his friend Mrs. Polak
tells us, and seemed to think that it 'obscured if it did not destroy
the capacity to perceive the
inner vision.' Of history and economics he has made no serious study.
His ideas of history are
such as might be derived from the school-books of fifty years
hundred years, seventy of which have passed, it will revolutionize
society. After that cataclysm
Bahaism will come into its own. 
He spoke with incredible seriousness, like one who sensed impending
disaster. It was not that he
anticipated the inevitable and evolutionary revolutions with every
thoughtful student of history
foresees, but an event more apocalyptic. Such changes as were under way
he grasped at as the
sign and seal of the soundness of Bahaism. Indeed it was as if among
the religions of the world,
Bahaism was the chanticleer whose crowing would cause the sun to rise
upon universal ruin.
"How many Bahaists would you say there are in the world?"
"We cannot say. We keep no records of membership, in the sense that the
does. The lines between Bahaism and Christianity are not yet clearly
demarked. It is sometimes
difficult to tell who are and who are not Bahaists, so much do they
merge. We also find that
many people assent to our teachings, even join our communion, but
refrain from active loyalty
"Do you ask your members to submit to any initiatory rite before you
"No ceremony is necessary for recognition of membership,
nor do we observe
any one day as peculiarly sacred. All that we insist on is the
acceptance of the status of
Baha'u'llah and of his infallible teachings in their
On this last point he was adamant and explicit. He reverted to it time
"Is Baha'u'llah in your thought a divine being and as such to be
"We do not think of him as God, though he is divine. He is God in the
sense that the mirror
reflects the sun. We know that the sun is not in the mirror, but we
know also that it is.
Similarly Baha'u'llah said he was God, and as such we worship him."
"You mean you pray to him?"
"Yes. Our prayers are to him, for by him as our Mediator we come to
7. The book referred to here is the Kitab-i-Aqdas
(the "Most Holy Book") a small volume written by Baha'u'llah, a compendium
of laws purporting to govern Bahaism a world-empire to be. Those
non-Bahaists who have had the opportunity to study it for the
Bahaists are jealous for its possession, as the conservative Muslim
insistence on unreserved acceptance of Baha'u'llah as the sole hope of
salvation, and its Levitical character as being manifested, patterned,
notwithstanding many changes, after the Koran, which work it abrogates
reason enough perhaps why they prefer it should remain untranslated.
8. Any ceremony involving public confession of the faith would hardly
be consonant with the practice of taqiyyah or dissimulation which Bahaism
"Are you not afraid that with the passing years Bahaism will degenerate
into a cult of saint- worship, a form of homolatry?"
"We see the danger, and the education of our people is my great concern,
to which I am devoting much thought."
"I wish you could dislodge from my mind the notion that Bahaism at its
best is but a fragment of the teachings of Jesus."
I said this because I was not unaware of the fact that the founder of
this cult had been influenced by the Bible.
"It does not contradict Christianity. It only supersedes it, as
a later revelation of a teaching more needed by this modern age," he
"In what way?"
"Not in fundamentals, but in the laws to govern future society which it
will promulgate" hinting, I thought, at the mysterious Kitab-i-Aqdas.
I surrendered. there was not much one could say, for as far as he was
concerned, the matter
obviously was closed.
We left the beach, the beautiful beach still strewn with the prickly
purple shells which made ancient Tyre famous for its dye, and re-entered
the city. As we did so our conversation dropped to an exchange of
commonplaces. what was the use of talk anyway? I was perplexed,
depressed at the seeming everlasting vitality of error; at the
credulity of men. True, I reflected, it is a bubble religion, an
evanescent phenomenon, but until it breaks, what waste of ideals, of
hope, of faith, of precious qualities of the human spirit! Moreover its
fraudulent character, not to mention its ill-balanced dogmatism, and its
attenuated ethics, covered o'er with the jargon of the
social reformer, rasped my sense of decency and right. The Greek in me
stumbled (was it, I wondered, thus with the Athenians and Paul?) as the
unperverted pagan within fought for a hearing, blinding me momentarily
to the pathos and - let us admit it the beauty in Bahaism's
smouldering, questing passion.
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