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What challenges did the Covenant face after the passing of ‘Abdu’l-Baha? (Part 1)

Ahmad Sohrab

The case of Ahmad Sohrab is, for one who has had any experience of orientals and of psychology, easily understandable. He was, for some years the secretary of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and enjoyed, as a result of this and the fact that he accompanied Him to America, (to be sure with a number of other Persians), a great deal of attention from the Bahá’ís who looked up to him and admired him. However, since the Master’s Will was read, and the administrative order, under the Guardianship, began to be developed, he became cognizant of the fact that his personal ambition for leadership would have to be subordinated to some degree of supervision; that he would have to obey the National and local assemblies - just like every other Bahá’í, and could not be free to teach wholly independent of any advice or supervision. This was the beginning of the defection which in the end took him outside the pale of the Faith: he refused not to be handled always as an exception, a privileged exception. In fact, if we keenly analyse it, it is almost invariably the soaring ambition and deep self-love of people that has led them to leave the Faith. Towards the end Sohrab used, in the course of his lectures, to incorporate quotation after quotation of Bahá’u'lláh’s words in his lectures, without once stating they were Bahá’u'lláh’s, and when the believers remonstrated with him over this plagiarism, it had no effect. After he had, of his own accord, left the organized body of the Faith and refused to be reconciled with it, he began to attack the administrators of it, first the American N.S.A., then the entire administrative order, and in the end the Guardian. What he teaches at present is so far divorced from our beloved Faith, and so tinged with the doctrines of many “cults” which we see thriving at present, as to be almost unrecognizable. Sohrab’s influence and activities in America have waned greatly, and he seems to now feel his only chance of causing mischief is to be active with his “caravan” movement abroad. The books and articles he published attacking the Guardian and, in fact, everything established in the Master’s Will, had no effect, and far from succeeding in causing any breach in the Faith in America, some of the very few who followed him out of the Cause, gave him up, and returned to serve the Cause with redoubled enthusiasm!

The Guardian feels that one of the best antidotes to those - Sohrab or others - who seek to undermine the faith of the believers, especially by harping on the subject of excommunication, is to place in their hands a German edition of “God Passes By”. For in that book he (the Guardian) has clearly pointed out that the Cause of God has always been attacked from within, and that, beginning in the days of the Báb, the “Sea of Truth” has over and over cast out its spiritually dead. It must do this, even as the body seeks to rid itself of poisons so as to preserve the health of the entire organism.

Your assembly should do all it can to protect and educate the believers so that they will understand that it is not personal ill-will, or lack of love, which leads to the excommunication of a person, but rather the fact that he has become like a cancer which must be removed before the entire body is destroyed.

From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, The Light of Divine Guidance v I, p. 134 -137

Avarih

Avarih was a native of the village of Taft in the province of Yazd. Before he embraced the Faith he was a Muslim clergyman. Soon after becoming a follower of Bahá’u'lláh he was recognized by the believers to be a man of learning and knowledge and became renowned as one of the erudite teachers of the Faith.

Abdu’l-Bahá, who was fully aware of the vices and corrupt practices of this man, did not prevent him from serving the Cause, and as long as he acted faithfully in relation to the Faith, He encouraged him, praised his work and wrote several Tablets in his honour. However, from the beginning of his involvement with the Bahá’í Faith, Avarih displayed a pride and vanity that puzzled those Bahá’ís who were in close contact with him.

On 19 January 1922 Shoghi Effendi wrote a letter to the Persian believers stating that he would soon establish the Universal House of Justice. He then called a number of well-known believers to the Holy Land in March 1922 for consultation. Among these was Avarih, who arrived late. Many of the believers, including Avarih, thought that Shoghi Effendi should call for the election of the Universal House of Justice immediately. However, it became apparent to Shoghi Effendi that the election of that body had to wait until such time as local and national spiritual assemblies could be formed in various countries and were fully functioning. But Avarih, dissatisfied with this decision, was still determined to press his point of view.

Following Avarih’s short stay in the Holy Land, he travelled to England in January 1923 and soon after he went to Egypt. During the few months that he remained in Cairo, he created dissension and disunity among the believers to such an extent that the Spiritual Assembly of Cairo complained to Shoghi Effendi. Thus he was invited to return to the Holy Land. Here he questioned the authenticity of the Will and Testament of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá but was satisfied when shown the original copy in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s handwriting. He then met with the Greatest Holy Leaf and reiterated to her his opinion that Shoghi Effendi should be advised to call for the election of the Universal House of Justice. He is reported to have uttered a veiled threat that if his demand were not acted upon, he would have no choice but to arouse the Bahá’ís of Persia to rebel against the Guardian.

In the meantime, he wrote letters to the believers expressing his dissatisfaction with the way the affairs of the Cause were being conducted. Upon his arrival in Persia he began propagating his misconceived ideas aimed at creating division among the friends there, with the result that in May 1924 the Spiritual Assembly of  Tihran sought guidance from the Guardian about to how to deal with Avarih. The response was that the friends must be protected from his misguided intentions.

This clear violation of the Covenant isolated Avarih from the believers. Even his wife left him and refused to associate with him. Soon he changed his tactics and wrote a series of letters to various members of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s family, saying that there had been misunderstandings and suggesting that if Shoghi Effendi were willing to arrange an annual income for him, he would alter his attitude and stop his activities against the Covenant of Bahá’u'lláh.

…In the several letters Avarih wrote asking for reinstatement, however, there was no expression of repentance, and when he received no positive response, he unveiled his satanic nature and wrote abusive letters to Shoghi Effendi, using offensive language and vowing to destroy the Faith of Bahá’u'lláh altogether. There was never among the Covenant-breakers during Shoghi Effendi’s ministry a man so vile and hypocritical as he.

Covenant-breakers usually oppose the Centre of the Faith but most of them claim to be believers in Bahá’u'lláh. In this case, however, Avarih rebelled against the Faith itself, in spite of the fact that he had spent more than two decades teaching the Cause of Bahá’u'lláh and had published voluminous writings declaring its truth and testifying to the authenticity of its Founder’s message. He joined hands with the Muslim clergy and Christian missionaries in attacking the Faith in Persia. He disseminated far and wide a series of his despicable publications against the Faith. In foul language, he attacked every aspect of the Faith, misrepresented its aims, and uttered slanders about its Central Figures, whom he attacked in most distasteful terms. ‘The volumes’, Shoghi Effendi writes, ‘which a shameless apostate composed and disseminated … in his brazen efforts not only to disrupt that Order [Administrative Order] but to undermine the very Faith which had conceived it, proved … abortive.’

In one of his letters to the Bahá’ís of Persia, who had completely ignored the activities of this ignoble man, Shoghi Effendi referred to Avarih as a dead body which the surging ocean of the Cause of God had cast upon its shores, thus cleansing itself of pollution. Shoghi  Effendi predicted that Avarih would live to a very old age in order to see with his own eyes the progress of the Faith throughout the world. And, indeed, he did live to be about a hundred years of age and witness the rising prestige of the Faith, the inauguration of the Holy Year in 1953, the completion of the superstructure of the Shrine of the Báb, the launching of the Ten Year Crusade and the convocation of several international conferences at which a host of teachers and pioneers arose to carry the message of Bahá’u'lláh to many virgin territories and establish the institutions of His Faith all over the globe. In a cable of 16 December 1953 announcing the death of Avarih, Shoghi Effendi referred to him as one who ‘will be condemned by posterity as being the most shameless, vicious, relentless apostate in the annals of the Faith, who, through ceaseless vitriolic attacks recorded in voluminous writings and close alliance with its traditional enemies, assiduously schemed to blacken its name and subvert the foundations of its institutions’.

Adib Taherzadeh, The Child of the Covenant, p. 294-296

Ruth White

Another person who rose up in opposition to Shoghi Effendi and to the establishment of the institutions of the Faith was Mrs Ruth White in the United States. A veteran believer, she had visited ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in the Holy Land in 1920. She claimed that the Will and Testament of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was not authentic and created much agitation in the community by attacking the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States and Canada, whose establishment she considered to be against the teachings and wishes of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. For several years Mrs White persevered in her determination to prevent the establishment of the institutions of the Faith. One of her actions was to write a letter to the United States Postmaster General asking him, among other things, to prohibit the National Spiritual Assembly from ‘using the United States mails to spread the falsehood that Shoghi Effendi is the successor of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and the Guardian of the Bahá’í Cause’.

Another of Mrs White’s letters was addressed to the High Commissioner for Palestine. In it she completely misrepresented the position of Shoghi Effendi but the authorities in the Holy Land were well aware of the facts and did not heed her appeals.

Mrs White also wrote many letters to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada, as well as to some believers, vehemently objecting to the directives of Shoghi Effendi and the administration of the Cause through the local and national institutions. One of Mrs White’s converts was Dr Herrigel, a founding member of the German Bahá’í community. He, too, rejected the authority of the Will and Testament and became numbered among the Covenant-breakers.

It is interesting to note that no one who has studied the Will and Testament of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, with the exception of Mrs White and a few others whom she influenced, has ever questioned its authenticity. Even other Covenant-breakers who rose up against Shoghi Effendi did not agree with her. Ahmad Sohrab and Subhi for example, who had both served ‘Abdu’l-Bahá as His secretary, never questioned the authenticity of the Will. Neither did Muhammad-’Ali, nor Badi’u'llah nor other enemies who were looking for any excuse they could find to attack the Guardian of the Faith.

It must be remembered that the Will and Testament was in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s handwriting and bore His seal. These were very familiar to the Persian believers because ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had written innumerable Tablets in His own hand and almost every Bahá’í family in Persia had received one or most of them. Thus, when the photostatic text of the Will and Testament was sent to Persia and elsewhere, it was easily acknowledged by everyone to be in the handwriting of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.

Adib Taherzadeh, The Child of the Covenant, p. 299

(Mrs. Ruth) White’s base, preposterous imputations should be entirely ignored. Her machinations can never succeed impede onward march of Cause. Present agitation will assuredly die down. Appeal American Bahá’ís, New York believers in particular, recall these days of stress sacredness of their trust, nobility of their calling. Slightest evidence internal division highly detrimental. Have just completed rough rendering of most detailed authentic narrative early days of Faith trusting its eventual publication may serve heighten enthusiasm deepen faith American believers.

From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, October 24, 1930 - Extracts from US Baha’i News

The Cause of God must be protected from the enemies of the Faith, and from those who sow seeds of doubt in the hearts of the believers, and the greatest of all protections is knowledge: there is no doubt that the silliest of all charges ever made is that the “Will and Testament” of the Master is a forgery! It is all in His own hand, sealed in more than one place with His own seal, and was opened after His death by some members of His own family, who took it from His own safe, in this house, and from that day it has been kept in the safe under lock and key. The charges of Mrs. White were the result of an unbalanced mind. No other enemy, even those who were shrewd and clever, made this foolish accusation!

From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, The Light of Divine Guidance v I, p. 134

“…as regards the handwriting of the Will, you should know that Shoghi Effendi sent out photostatic copies of the Will not only to National Spiritual Assemblies, but also for distribution among individual believers in Persia. You should also remember that the members of the Master’s family, including his half-brother, Muhammad-’Ali, who is so strongly condemned in the Will, as well as the thousands of Persian believers who had received or studied Tablets from Him, were thoroughly familiar with the handwriting of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and the Will is so obviously in that handwriting that no one who was qualified to judge — even those who could profit by claiming that the Will was invalid — has ever questioned its authenticity. Even believers who became bitter enemies of Shoghi Effendi after the passing of the Master, … did not question the validity of the Will. The only challenge came from Mrs. White, an American ignorant of Persian, who had the ulterior motive of trying to discredit an administration which she personally opposed. The handwriting expert whose opinion she quoted in support of her argument was also a westerner and himself stated that he could not give a final opinion without seeing the writing in the original.

“Mrs. White went as far as appealing to the civil authorities of Palestine to take legal action in the matter, a request which the British Authorities curtly refused. When, several months later, Badi’u'llah, the brother and lieutenant of the deceased arch-breaker of Bahá’u'lláh’s Covenant, approached these same authorities claiming the right to oppose the projected transfer of the remains of the Mother and Brother of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá from ‘Akká to Haifa, they categorically upheld the authority of Shoghi Effendi as the Successor of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá on the basis of their scrutiny of the Will and Testament, the validity of which Badi’u'llah did not dispute.

Universal House of Justice, quoted in The Covenant of Baha’u'llah, p. 348

An interesting aftermath of this whole affair was the Mrs White’s husband, in 1941, cabled Shoghi Effendi he was “profoundly sorrowing and repentant pleading forgiveness…” It seemed he had never really agreed with her. Shoghi Effendi wrote to him, opening the door for his return, but even at this late date it proved impossible for him to disentangle himself from his redoubtable and unrepentant wife, so that his change of heart could not produce a change of status.

Ruhiyyih Khanum, The Priceless Pearl, p. 119

Members of Shoghi Effendi’s family

…one must understand the old story of Cain and Abel, the story of family jealousies which, like a sombre tread in the fabric of history, runs through all its epochs and can be traced in all its events. Ever since the opposition of the younger brother of Bahá’u'lláh, Mirza Yahya, the poison of Covenant-breaking, which is opposition to the Centre of the Covenant, entered the Faith and remained. It is difficult for those who have neither experienced what this disease is, nor devoted any consideration to the subject, to grasp the reality of the power for destruction it possesses. All the members of the family of Bahá’u'lláh grew up in the shadow of Covenant-breaking. The storms, separations, reconciliations, final sundering of ties, which are involved when a close, distinguished and often dear relative is dying spiritually of a spiritual disease, are inconceivable to one who has not experienced them. The weakness of the human heart, which so often attaches itself to an unworthy object, the weakness of the human mind, prone to conceit and self-assurance in personal opinions, involve people in a welter of emotions that blind their judgment and lead them far astray. In the East, where the sense of family to this day is still strongly clannish, its members cling to each other much more intensely than in the West. No matter what Yahya had done there was a lingering feeling in the family that, after all, some reason must be on his side, not all justification in a “family matter was necessarily on Bahá’u'lláh’s side. One can readily see that if even the faintest trace of such an attitude existed amongst members of Bahá’u'lláh’s own family the children would not grow up to see Covenant-breaking in its true proportions. The flaw would be there, the most dangerous of all human doubts, that after all the Perfect One might not under all circumstances be perfect, but sometimes just a little prone to error in judging others. When this doubt enters the germs are present in one’s own system, perhaps to lie dormant forever, perhaps to flare up into disease. It has always seemed to me that the division which took place in  122  Bahá’u'lláh’s family after His ascension, and the successive disaffections two generations later of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s entire family from Shoghi Effendi, had begun in an attitude of mind that developed in the Baghdad days before Bahá’u'lláh had even declared His Mission. The root was back there, the poisonous fruit garnered eighty years later…

The Covenant-breaking inside the family of Bahá’u'lláh was like a vine, it entwined the tree and strangled it; wherever its tendrils reached out it plucked up what it would itself about and destroyed that too. This is why so many of the minor relatives, the secretaries, the members of the community surrounding the Centre of the Cause, became involved in the periodic disaffections of various members of the family and every time one of these diseased members was lopped off, some blinded sympathizers went too.

It looks simple on paper. But when year after year a house is torn by heart-breaking emotions, shaken by scenes that leave one’s brain numb, one’s nerves decimated and one’s feelings in a turmoil, it is not simple, it is just plain hell. Before a patient lies on the operating table and the offending part is removed there is a long process of delay, of therapeutic effort to remedy the disease, of hope for recovery. So it is with Covenant-breaking; the taint is detected; warning, remonstrance, advice follow; it seems better; it breaks out again, worse than before; convulsive situations arise - repentance, forgiveness follow - and then all over again, the same thing, worse than before, recommences. With infinite variations this is what took place in the lifetimes of Bahá’u'lláh, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi.

It is all history now and there is no use recapitulating it case by case. But I believe one thing should be made clear. Whereas we ordinary human beings react in one way, these extraordinary human beings react in an entirely different way. They are, in such matters - however great the difference in their own stations - entirely different from us. I used to wonder, in the early years of my life with the Guardian, why he go so terribly upset by these happenings, why he reacted so violently to them, why he would be prostrated from evidences of Covenant-breaking. Gradually I came to understand that such beings, so different from us, have  some sort of mysterious built-in scales in their very souls; automatically they register the spiritual state of others, just as one side of a scale goes down instantly if you put something in it because of the imbalance this creates. We individual Bahá’ís are like the fish in the sea of the Cause, but these beings are like the sea itself, any alien element in the sea of the Cause, so to speak, with which, because of their nature, they are wholly identified, produces an automatic reaction on their part; the sea casts out its dead.

Shoghi Effendi, forced often to announce publicly the spiritual downfall of not only well-known Bahá’ís but the members of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s own family, refers to the latter as “those whose acts proclaim their severance from the Holy Tree and their forfeiture of their sacred birthright.” His heart, he said, was oppressed by the “repeated defections” of the “unworthy kindred” of the beloved Master, defections which, he made clear, were a “process of purification whereby an inscrutable Wisdom chose from time to time to purge the body of His chosen followers of the defilement of the undesirable and the unworthy…” Shoghi Effendi pointed out that those who are inimical to the Faith always seize upon evidences of this purification process as a symptom of oncoming schism which they hopefully anticipate will bring about its downfall. But which never has.

Even though this phenomenon of Covenant-breaking seems to be an inherent aspect of religion this does not mean it produces no damaging effect on the Cause. On the contrary, as Shoghi Effendi cabled the Bahá’ís after the death of a relative: “time alone will reveal extent havoc wreaked this virus violation injected fostered over two decades ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s family”. It does not mean that much of it could not be avoided through greater individual effort and loyalty. Above all it does not mean that a devastating effect is not produced on the Centre of the Covenant himself. Shoghi Effendi’s whole life was darkened by the vicious personal attacks made upon him. I personally am convinced that the main reason the heart of the Guardian was sufficiently undermined physically for it to stop in 1957 was because of the unbearable strain thirty-six years of interminable struggle with a series of Covenant-breakers had placed upon it. It is only necessary to add that it was the death of his own brother-in-law that provided the occasion for sending the above-quoted cable, for us to catch a glimpse of what Shoghi Effendi repeatedly passed through during his ministry.

On one occasion he cable a believer who was very close to him, and who, he had recently learned, had been very badly treated by a near relative: “Heart overflowing sympathy your sufferings so courageously endured. Would have instantly communicated had I known. Both you I tasted cup disillusionment treatment nearest relatives. Feel close to you realization your sorrows memory your superb continued imperishable services. Praying fervently Holy Shrines Deepest love.”

Perhaps these words from my diary, written between 1940 and 1945, under the influence of what I saw Shoghi Effendi going through in the long shattering crisis that deprived him of his relatives, can better convey the effect of Covenant-breaking:

“He goes on, but it is like a man in blizzard who cannot sometimes even open his eyes for the blinding snow.” “He is like a man whose skin has been burned off…it is a miracle he can keep going.” “I feel sure the tide will turn. but oh, never, never to find Shoghi Effendi as he was! I don’t think anything in this world will ever be able to efface what these last years have done to him! Time is a great healer but it cannot remove scars.” “It seems it is all irretrievably broken.”…

The patience of Shoghi Effendi in handling these terrible situations that arose in his own family is shown by the fact that on one occasion he held for eight months a cable excommunicating his brother while he tried - vainly - to remedy the situation and obviate the necessity of sending a message that was so heart-breaking to him.

Ruhiyyih Khanum, The Priceless Pearl, p. 120