A Muhammad Ali revival?
Posted by Sen on March 27, 2010
Mirza Muhammad Ali was a younger brother of Abdu’l-Baha who rebelled against his brother’s authority as head of the Bahai community, was able to secure possession of some Bahai properties and for some time to cause other difficulties, particularly by misrepresenting Abdu’l-Baha to the government as a threat to the Ottoman state. By the end of his life, Muhammad Ali was left without friends or followers, and had been forced to abandon the properties that he had seized, but did not have the means to maintain in a liveable condition. He died in 1937. There has been no “Muhammad Ali” sect of the Bahai Faith for seventy years past. So why mention this old history here?
In recent weeks we have seen the curious phenomenon of an attempt to revive the claims of Muhammad Ali, in order to lend legitimacy to a newly-established sect, the ‘Unitarian Bahai Association’ avowing loyalty to Baha’u’llah but rejecting the authority that Baha’u’llah gave to Abdu’l-Baha and the Universal House of Justice. These claims have been made on a web site, and in postings to discussion groups, so I am breaking no confidences and blackening no reputations by mentioning them here: these people’s own public statements have already told the world what they are about. One of those who have been publicising this attempt on facebook, Eric Stetson, has put a comment on this blog. I welcome this as an opportunity to demonstrate why the rehabilitation of Muhammad Ali is not a realistic alternative to accepting the authority that Baha’u’llah gave to Abdu’l-Baha to lead the Bahai community. I welcome it so much, I’m putting my response to Eric here as well as in the comments section.
I reject completely the implication that there is some sort of equivalence between the positions of Abdu’l-Baha and Muhammad Ali. In the first place, look at their fruits. One is a fruitful branch, the other a long-dead twig. It cannot be revived today.
In the second place, look at what Abdu’l-Baha has against Muhammad Ali:
Ye know well what the hands of the Center of Sedition, Mirza Muhammad Ali, and his associates have wrought. Among his doings, one of them is the corruption of the Sacred Text whereof ye are all aware, the Lord be praised, and know that it is evident, proven and confirmed by the testimony of his brother, Mirza Badi’u'llah, whose confession is written in his own handwriting, beareth his seal, is printed and spread abroad. This is but one of his misdeeds. … In short, according to the explicit Divine Text the least transgression shall make of this man a fallen creature, and what transgression is more grievous than attempting to destroy the Divine Edifice, breaking the Covenant, erring from the Testament, falsifying the Holy Text, sowing the seeds of doubt, calumniating ‘Abdu’l-Baha, advancing claims for which God hath sent down no warrant, kindling mischief and striving to shed the very blood of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, … Beware lest ye approach this man, for to approach him is worse than approaching fire!
(Abdu’l-Baha’s Will and Testament, 20)
But what did Muhammad Ali have against Abdu’l-Baha? Did Abdu’l-Baha ever wrong Muhammad Ali? All he did was prevent Muhammad Ali’s schemes succeeding. All that Muhammad Ali could find to claim, was the baseless allegations that Abdu’l-Baha was setting up an alternative state and plotting rebellion against the Ottomans, and the mere assertion, frequently and clearly refuted, that Abdu’l-Baha had claimed to be a Manifestation of God. If that were true, where is the evidence for it in Abdu’l-Baha’s writings? Abdu’l-Baha’s vehement denials of such a station are on record:
“I affirm,” is ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s own written comment on [Baha'u'llah's] the Tablet of the Branch, “that the true meaning, the real significance, the innermost secret of these verses, of these very words, is my own servitude to the sacred Threshold of the Abha Beauty, my complete self-effacement, my utter nothingness before Him. This is my resplendent crown, my most precious adorning. … “No one is permitted,” He warns us in the passage which immediately follows, “to give these verses any other interpretation.” “I am,” He, in this same connection, affirms, “according to the explicit texts of the Kitab-i-Aqdas and the Kitab-i-’Ahd the manifest Interpreter of the Word of God… Whoso deviates from my interpretation is a victim of his own fancy.”
(Tr. by Shoghi Effendi in The World Order of Baha’u'llah, 138)
Clear enough I think. I’ve been the victim of calumny myself, with ambitions attributed to me I never even toyed with in my dreams. So I am not about to accept that the calumnator is in any way the moral equivalent of the calumnee. Abdu’l-Baha plainly did not claim any station more or less than exactly what Baha’u’llah had given him. Muhammad Ali’s assertion that he did claim more, is a self-serving lie. No equivalence there at all.
Here’s just some of what Baha’u’llah wrote about Abdu’l-Baha:
“… well is it with him that hath sought His shelter and abideth beneath His shadow. Verily the Limb of the Law of God hath sprung forth from this Root… A Word hath, as a token of Our grace, gone forth from the Most Great Tablet …Render thanks unto God, O people, for His appearance; for verily He is the most great Favor unto you, the most perfect bounty upon you; and through Him every mouldering bone is quickened. Whoso turneth towards Him hath turned towards God, and whoso turneth away from Him hath turned away from My beauty, hath repudiated My Proof, and transgressed against Me. He is the Trust of God amongst you, His charge within you, His manifestation unto you and His appearance among His favored servants… We have sent Him down in the form of a human temple. Blest and sanctified be God Who createth whatsoever He willeth through His inviolable, His infallible decree. They who deprive themselves of the shadow of the Branch, are lost in the wilderness of error, are consumed by the heat of worldly desires, and are of those who will assuredly perish.”
“O Thou Who art the apple of Mine eye!” Baha’u'llah, in His own handwriting, thus addresses ‘Abdu’l-Baha, “My glory, the ocean of My loving-kindness, the sun of My bounty, the heaven of My mercy rest upon Thee. We pray God to illumine the world through Thy knowledge and wisdom, to ordain for Thee that which will gladden Thine heart and impart consolation to Thine eyes.” “The glory of God rest upon Thee,” He writes in another Tablet, “and upon whosoever serveth Thee and circleth around Thee. Woe, great woe, betide him that opposeth and injureth Thee. Well is it with him that sweareth fealty to Thee; the fire of hell torment him who is Thine enemy.” “We have made Thee a shelter for all mankind,” He, in yet another Tablet, affirms, “a shield unto all who are in heaven and on earth, a stronghold for whosoever hath believed in God, the Incomparable, the All-Knowing. God grant that through Thee He may protect them, may enrich and sustain them, that He may inspire Thee with that which shall be a wellspring of wealth unto all created things, an ocean of bounty unto all men, and the dayspring of mercy unto all peoples.”
(Both passages tr. by Shoghi Effendi, in The World Order of Baha’u'llah, 135)
That ‘Abdu’l-Baha is not a Manifestation of God, that He gets His light, His inspiration and sustenance direct from the Fountain-head of the Baha’i Revelation; that He reflects even as a clear and perfect Mirror the rays of Baha’u'llah’s glory, and does not inherently possess that indefinable yet all-pervading reality the exclusive possession of which is the hallmark of Prophethood; that His words are not equal in rank, though they possess an equal validity with the utterances of Baha’u'llah; that He is not to be acclaimed as the return of Jesus Christ, the Son Who will come “in the glory of the Father” — these truths find added justification, and are further reinforced, by the following statement of ‘Abdu’l-Baha …: “You have written that there is a difference among the believers concerning the ‘Second Coming of Christ.’ Gracious God! Time and again this question hath arisen, and its answer hath emanated in a clear and irrefutable statement from the pen of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, that what is meant in the prophecies by the ‘Lord of Hosts’ and the ‘Promised Christ’ is the Blessed Perfection (Baha’u'llah) and His holiness the Exalted One (the Bab). My name is ‘Abdu’l-Baha [servant of Baha]. My qualification is ‘Abdu’l-Baha. My reality is ‘Abdu’l-Baha. My praise is ‘Abdu’l-Baha. Thraldom to the Blessed Perfection 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-Baha. This is my longing. This is my greatest yearning. This is my eternal life. This is my everlasting glory.”
(Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u'llah, 139)
What then of Muhammad Ali. What mention does he deserve? What good works has he done, where are the hungry he fed, what writings has he left us, what hearts has he transformed, what community has he created?
He gets a passing mention, in Baha’u’llah’s Will:
It is incumbent upon the Aghsan, the Afnan and My Kindred to turn, one and all, their faces towards the Most Mighty Branch [Abdu’l-Baha]. Consider that which We have revealed in Our Most Holy Book: ‘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 hath branched from this Ancient Root.’ The object of this sacred verse is none other except the Most Mighty Branch [Abdu'l-Baha]. Thus have We graciously revealed unto you Our potent Will, and I am verily the Gracious, the All-Powerful. Verily God hath ordained the station of the Greater Branch [Muhammad Ali] to be beneath that of the Most Great Branch [Abdu'l-Baha]. He is in truth the Ordainer, the All-Wise. We have chosen ‘the Greater’ after ‘the Most Great’, as decreed by Him Who is the All-Knowing, the All-Informed.
(Tablets of Baha’u'llah, 221-2)
Because there is no equivalence between Abdu’l-Baha and Muhammad Ali, there can be no “bitter conflict … between Abdul-Baha and his brother.” The choice facing Muhammad Ali was simply to obey their Father and submit to Abdu’l-Baha, or to mutiny. He made his choice; I for one am not about to give him any credit for it.
As for the other points you raise, it is not true that Abdu’l-Baha’s writings are “regarded by Bahais as the equivalent of scriptural texts.” (See above: “His words are not equal in rank, though they possess an equal validity with the utterances of Baha’u'llah”)
You say also that “Abdul-Baha established the precedent that Bahais who believe the successor of Bahaullah has only limited authority rather than absolute authority can be designated by the head of the faith as someone that Bahais must shun.”
This is simply untrue: I leave it to you whether it is ignorance or calumny. Abdu’l-Baha’s own emphatic words against those who would give him any authority higher than what Baha’u’llah had explicitly stated, have been cited above. Likewise your similar assertion about Shoghi Effendi: in sober fact, Shoghi Effendi was at pains to emphasise that his authority, his sphere of action and his infallibility were limited:
The Guardian of the Faith must not under any circumstances, and whatever his merits or his achievements, be exalted to the rank that will make him a co-sharer with ‘Abdu’l-Baha in the unique position which the Center of the Covenant occupies – much less to the station exclusively ordained for the Manifestation of God. So grave a departure from the established tenets of our Faith is nothing short of open blasphemy. As I have already stated, in the course of my references to ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s station, however great the gulf that separates Him from the Author of a Divine Revelation it can never measure with the distance that stands between Him Who is the Center of Baha’u'llah’s Covenant and the Guardians who are its chosen ministers. There is a far, far greater distance separating the Guardian from the Center of the Covenant than there is between the Center of the Covenant and its Author.
No Guardian of the Faith, I feel it my solemn duty to place on record, can ever claim to be the perfect exemplar of the teachings of Baha’u'llah or the stainless mirror that reflects His light. Though overshadowed by the unfailing, the unerring protection of Baha’u'llah and of the Bab, and however much he may share with ‘Abdu’l-Baha the right and obligation to interpret the Baha’i teachings, he remains essentially human and cannot, if he wishes to remain faithful to his trust, arrogate to himself, under any pretense whatsoever, the rights, the privileges and prerogatives which Baha’u'llah has chosen to confer upon His Son. In the light of this truth to pray to the Guardian of the Faith, to address him as lord and master, to designate him as his holiness, to seek his benediction, to celebrate his birthday, or to commemorate any event associated with his life would be tantamount to a departure from those established truths that are enshrined within our beloved Faith. The fact that the Guardian has been specifically endowed with such power as he may need to reveal the purport and disclose the implications of the utterances of Baha’u'llah and of ‘Abdu’l-Baha does not necessarily confer upon him a station co-equal with those Whose words he is called upon to interpret. He can exercise that right and discharge this obligation and yet remain infinitely inferior to both of them in rank and different in nature.
(Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u'llah, 151)
Finally, you claim that this policy of shunning covenant-breakers was not established by Baha’u’llah himself. I have already posted a selection of writings from Baha’u’llah, where they are cited in Abdu’l-Baha’s last tablet to America. Study this tablet.
Mirza Yahya was “the Arch-Breaker of the Covenant of the Bab” (Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, 165), as Muhammad Ali was “the arch-breaker of the Covenant of Baha’u'llah.” (Shoghi Effendi, Baha’i Administration, 191) Baha’u’llah instructed his followers to shun Mirza Yahya, and those who followed and associated with him. He did not tell them to shun the Babis! As Abdu’l-Baha says in that tablet:
If this objection be raised against ‘Abdu’l-Baha, they must also object to the Blessed Beauty who, with distinct and conclusive command, forbids the friends from companionship and familiarity with the violators of the people of Bayan.
The reason for the policy of shunning the violators was not that they had a different religion, it was because there is such a thing as a Covenant, and it is no trifle to be played with. The Covenant – combined with the policy that we do not use violence or in any way discriminate against the legitimate rights of the covenant-breakers, but simply leave them to God – is the greatest protection for our children and great-great-grandchildren from the curse of sectarian strife that has clouded the undoubted light of both Christianity and Islam. The blood on the robes of past religions comes not just from their lack of an explicit written covenant identifying the successor to the Founder and his authorities, but also from the lack of a clear principle that sectarian tendencies must be combatted only by shunning those who form sects.