Abdu’l-Baha’s British knighthood
Posted by Sen on April 22, 2011
Abdu’l-Baha’s knighthood has never been a matter of importance to Bahais themselves, who have many much weightier reasons to admire and follow Abdu’l-Baha as the successor to his father, Baha’u’llah, as the authorised interpreter of the Bahai scripture and teachings, as the Centre of the Covenant that unites Bahais across the world, and as the best exemplar of the Bahai life. However the photograph of Abdu’l-Baha, seated at the ceremony to confer on him the honour of Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire, is one of the stock images on Iranian and Islamic anti-Bahai sites that seek to present the Bahai Faith as a Western invention, foreign to the Middle East. These anti-Bahai sites have also presented quite scandalous speculations about the reasons for the British award, such as Abdu’l-Baha spying for the British during the period of Ottoman rule, or supplying the British army during the war. So it will be useful to have a blog page that gathers documented evidence of Abdu’l-Baha’s activities before and during the British Mandate in Palestine, and the circumstances of his knighthood. What I have is incomplete: feel free to use the comments section to add more. I have selected what appear to me the more illuminating documents published in Moojan Momen’s The Babi and Bahai Religions: Some Contemporary Western Accounts, beginning on page 332, and supplemented these from other sources. To avoid a metres-long page, in some case I have put references and brief summaries on this page, with links to the full documents and their sources in the comments section.
A little history
Abdu’l-Baha returned to Palestine from his European journeys eight months before the outbreak of World War I. In that war, the Ottoman Empire which ruled Palestine was allied with the Central Powers, against the United Kingdom, France and Russia and their ‘associate,’ the United States.
Abdu’l-Baha remained in Palestine throughout the war. For the first few months, he and the Bahais retired to the Druze village of Abu-Sinan, but as the severe famine remembered as the Safar Barlik struck Palestine, due to maladministration, the disruption caused by the war, Ottoman requisitions, and a plague of locusts, Abdu’l-Baha returned to Haifa to organise the distribution of food and supplies. Haifa was central, since it had both a port and a railway, which connected to the Hijaz-Palestine railway.
Because of this importance, Haifa was also under threat of naval bombardment by the British Navy in the Mediterranean. As the course of the war turned in favour of the Allies, Field Marshall Allenby, leader of the multi-national Egyptian Expeditionary Force, based in Egypt, launched a drive north to capture the Ottoman territories of Palestine and Syria. They captured Jerusalem on December 9, 1917, but stopped their advance there for about 10 months, until late summer in 1918, because two thirds of Allenby’s infantry and all his tanks were required in France. They were replaced by infantry and cavalry from the British Empire. During this 10-month period, the population of Ottoman-controlled Palestine suffered terribly.
When the allied attack was resumed after this pause, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force broke through the German-Ottoman defenses on September 19, and the cavalry advanced swiftly up the Mediterranean coast to the Carmel Ridge, overlooking Haifa. They seized the passes there on September 20, and Indian cavalry entered Haifa on September 21 [or 23, according to Momen]. Damascus fell on 1 October, and Aleppo on 25 October. On November 2, 1917, the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, stating its support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
Palestine remained under British military occupation for the remainder of the war, while Syria and Lebanon became a French sphere of influence. Palestine’s first formal administration was under a military governor, General Money. In April 1920, the occupation was rechristened a League of Nations mandate (only finally confirmed by the League of Nations in 1922), and in July 1920 the military administration was replaced by a High Commissioner, Herbert Samuel.
Meeting the need
In the Hidden Words, Baha’u’llah writes: “The best of men are they that earn a livelihood by their calling and spend upon themselves and upon their kindred …” And in his Will he writes, “It is enjoined upon everyone to manifest love towards the Aghsan [Baha’u’llah’s sons], but God hath not granted them any right to the property of others. His sons therefore were expected to earn their own livings. Zia Bagdadi reports a talk in which Abdu’l-Baha says that he is able to weave a mat, and I have heard from other sources that Abdu’l-Baha learned to be a mat weaver in his youth. That would have been a handicraft that could be done in prison, to earn a little income. As the conditions of detention were eased, Abdu’l-Baha established himself as a significant businessman in the area. By 1911 and 1912, he was able to pay all the expenses for himself and his entourage during their travels to Europe and North America.
Some of Abdu’l-Baha’s business activities leading up to, and during, the First World War have been described by Iraj Poostchi, in ‘Adasiyyah: A Study in Agriculture and Rural Development’ (Baha’i Studies Review 16 (2010), pp. 61–105). Adasiyyah was just one of Abdu’l-Baha’s ventures (there were also farms at Samrah, Nuqayb and Nogaile, and perhaps others I have not heard about). Thanks to Poostchi’s research, the Adasiyyah estate gives us a picture of Abdu’l-Baha’s vigour and persistence in business. Briefly, sometime in 1901, Abdu’l-Baha purchased about 2200 acres of land at Adasiyyah, on the Jordan river, for 400 Turkish lira. Soon after, he gave 1/24th of the land to the family from whom he purchased it, 3/24ths to his brother Mirza Muhammad ‘Ali (despite the latter making false accusations against him to the Ottoman authorities), and 1/24th to the Mufti of Akka, leaving Abdu’l-Baha with about 1704 acres.
The land at that time was scrubland. A first attempt to grow wheat and barley was unsuccessful, due to lawlessness in the area, and ‘Abdu’l-Baha then leased the land for two years to a wealthy Christian merchant, on condition that he would build a house, stables and animal sheds in lieu of one year’s rental, and would prepare the ground. He too failed, due to the theft of his produce. In 1907 Abdu’l-Baha arranged for a number of Bahai farmers, mostly those of Zoroastrian background from the village of Mahdiyabad, to come to Palestine, and in the following years increasing numbers moved to Adasiyyah. The influx continued until 1916. Most of the land was farmed by individual families in a sharecropping arrangement. The farmers had security of tenure, and if they wished to give up the land, could ask for a payment from the incoming sharecropper. These provisions gave them an incentive to improve the land and facilities. The share croppers were responsible for seed, water, manure and labour for their plots. They were advised but not required to pay their labourers a portion of their profits. Before the war they paid 1/3rd of their harvest to Abdu’l-Baha, and after the war 1/5th (the norm at that time was a 50/50 division). This would be paid in cash or in grain, which would be shipped to Haifa, some of it for distribution to the poor.
Abdu’l-Baha took a close interest in the farming and in the little community. He advised the farmers to plant a type of eucalyptus that produces quinine in its bark, to drain a marsh, combat malaria, cool the climate and ultimately for construction timber. The Baha’i farmers also built a small stone dam in the Yarmouk river, which provided water for both the Bahai and non-Bahai farms in the area through an irrigation ditch that eventually extended over a kilometre. In addition to wheat and barley (usually on the unirrigated land), they grew chickpeas, lentils, broad beans, tomatoes, bananas, citrus fruits, pomegranate, apples, pears and other fruit, vetch and sweet corn, as well as raising cattle, sheep, goats, poultry, and pigeons. Crop rotation was practiced. ‘Abdu’l-Baha encouraged the farmers to diversify to fruit production, and suggested that they grow large yellow lemons and sesame seeds, which fetched much higher prices than other farm products. He introduced bananas by bringing a number of shoots (suckers) from India, which also proved lucrative. He also encouraged them to engage in crafts and small rural industries, and to expand their sales to markets further away.
In July 1917, with the First World War raging and rainfall also poor, Abdu’l-Baha arrived in Adasiyyah and told the Bahais that he needed wheat for Haifa and Akka. The Bahai farmers offered Abdu’l-Baha all they had, and Abdu’l-Baha also bought all the wheat available in the area, using 200 camels to ship it to Haifa and ‘Akka, carrying 400 sacks on each trip. According to Iraj Poostchi’s informants, when the caravan arrived at Haifa, the British had already taken the city. This is plausible: if Abdu’l-Baha intended to feed the population, there would have been little point in sending the food while the Ottoman forces were in control, since they would have requisitioned the supplies for their soldiers. So it was that hundreds of the poor there benefited from the wheat distributed by ‘Abdu’l-Baha on this dramatic occasion. However this distribution was not a unique event: as noted above the share farmers would sometimes pay their rents in grain, and Abdu’l-Baha distributed some at least of this in small amounts to individual households, and stored some at the Khan Al-Umdan and Khan Al-Shavardeh in Akka. HM Balyuzi describes how the wheat was given to a lady named Sakinih Sultan, and quotes a letter sent on July 26th 1918, and a list for the distribution of a shipment of wheat:
Ratls [i.e., 2.5 kg bags]
Neighbours’ daughters 25
‘Abdu’r-Rahman the son of Ahmad Effendi 30
Hanna’s wife 15
The fat woman 25
I know of one Persian family that preserves such a distribution list as a momento of Abdu’l-Baha: it’s likely that dozens or even hundreds of these lists existed, for Abdu’l-Baha’s philanthropy did not begin or end with the war (nor was it limited to grain: he also handed out coats for the poor at the onset of winter).
Abdu’l-Baha’s friends sound the alarm
Major Tudor-Pole, an active British Bahai who had met and talked with Abdu’l-Baha in Cairo and Alexandra in 1910 and again in London in 1911, was serving in the British-led Egyptian Expeditionary Force, and was wounded in the fighting around Jerusalem. He was then transferred to Military Intelligence in Cairo. Information reached him of the serious threat to Abdu’l-Baha’s life made by the Turkish Commander-in-Chief, Jamal Pasha, who had expressed his intention of ‘crucifying’ Abdu’l-Baha. In a letter written some time later (perhaps in the late 1930s), He recalls his efforts to interest the British military authorities:
Meanwhile [about March 1918], the news reaching me concerning ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s imminent danger became more and more alarming. I tried to arouse interest in the matter among those who were responsible for Intelligence Service activities (including General Clayton, Sir Wyndham Deedes, and Sir Ronald Storrs — the latter having been made Governor of Jerusalem). I also brought the matter before my own chief, General Sir Arthur [Money] (Chief Administrator of Occupied Enemy Territory). None of these personages knew anything about ‘Abdu’l-Baha, nor could they be made to realize the urgent need to ensure His safety.” (Lady Blomfield, The Chosen Highway, p. 222)
One of those whom Tudor-Pole says was uninterested, Ronald Storrs, had met Abdu’l-Baha in Akka in 1909, and was to do so again in Egypt in 1920, when Storrs introduced to Abdu’l-Baha to Lord Kitchener. It appears that Storrs was very much impressed by Abdu’l-Baha, and would not have needed a reminder from Tudor-Pole as to his importance. Perhaps Tudor-Pole’s memory is playing him tricks, or perhaps Storrs was one of those contacted by Tudor-Pole, but he saw no need to inform a subordinate that he had already noted the matter.
Tudor-Pole’s memory is not reliable as to the date. As early as December 24, 1917, while he was still listed as ‘in hospital,’ Tudor-Pole bypassed his superiors in the Expeditionary Force, and wrote to Sir Mark Sykes, a British MP and diplomatic advisor on Middle East affairs:
… the Bahai leader and his family are in imminent danger … His position and prestige is not understood among the Authorities here. It is not even realized that he controls a remarkable religious movement, wholly devoid of political and military associations; which can number many millions of adherents throughout the Near and Middle East. … Is it too much to ask the Authorities at home to request the Authorities here to afford Abdul Baha every protection and consideration? … A word from Whitehall works wonders. (more… )
That letter did not reach Sykes at the Foreign Office until February 6, 1918. In the meantime, Tudor-Pole wrote to Lady Blomfield, a Bahai living in London, who went to Lord Lamington, a former Governor of Bombay who had himself met Abdu’l-Baha in London in 1912, and who as an active participant in the House of Lords had some influence in government circles. Lamington wrote to Lord Balfour, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, on January 24, asking that ‘action be taken,’ and enclosing an outline of the situation. (More …)
Tudor-Pole was not the only person seeking to call the authorities’ attention to the need to protect Abdu’l-Baha. In Edinburgh, Mrs Whyte, for whom Abdu’l-Baha wrote his well known ‘Seven Candles of Unity,’ received an account of the danger from a Mr. Russel, of whom nothing further is known, and wrote at once to her son, the MP Federick Whyte, who in turn wrote to Sir Mark Sykes on January 25 1918. Whyte asked Sykes to consider “whether you think there is anything in the suggestion contained in Mr. Russel’s letter” and pointed out that “Lord Curzon was very deeply impressed with the Bahai Movement in Persia itself and he may be willing to interest himself in the matter now.” (more …) Lord Curzon was a very big fish indeed: a former Viceroy of India and Lord Privy Seal, and at the time we are discussing, a member of the War Cabinet.
The letters of Lamington and Whyte arrived in the Foreign Office on January 26, and were handled by Ronald Graham, a diplomat who had himself served in Egypt, who wrote as comment to Whyte’s letter: “The Bahais are splendid people, but I do not see how we can help Abdul Baha unless and until we get to Haifa.” All they could do, he suggested, was “call the attention of the British Authorities in Egypt to Abdul Baha’s presence at Haiffa.”
This was precisely what Tudor-Pole had sought. A telegram was sent to Sir Reginald Wingate, the British High Commissioner in Egypt who was responsible for the political affairs of the Egyptian Expeditionary Forces. Dated January 30, 1918, it reads:
My attention has been called to the presence at Haiffa of Abdul Baha, head of the Bahais. Please warn the General Officer Commanding that he and his family should be treated with special consideration in the event of our occupying Haiffa. (more …)
Another telegram was sent on February 5, 1918, from Sykes at the Foreign Office to General Clayton, who as Chief Political Officer with the EEF was responsible for administering captured territories, asking him for information about Abdul-Baha, whose “influence in America is appreciable.” (more …)
As we have seen, there was little military action in Palestine from January 1918 until late September, and the British authorities in Jerusalem and Cairo apparently took no action for Abdu’l-Baha, and probably could not have taken any. The importance of this flurry of communications is that it shows that Abdu’l-Baha was unknown to the British military authorities in Jerusalem, which also shows that he was not feeding their army or supplying them with information. Haifa was in any case isolated by the blockade and the front line, and communications were censored. The documents confirm Tudor-Pole’s recollection of finding the British authorities in Palestine uninformed about the Bahai Faith, and uninterested in Abdu’l-Baha.
The documents also show us how a number of important people in England, in the circles who recommend people for British knighthoods and other honours, came to know about Abdu’l-Baha and his importance to the world.
It has been suggested that Allenby did take action to protect Abdu’l-Baha, by switching his attack to the coastal plain and ordering his troops to rush to seize Haifa before Jamal Pasha could execute Abdu’l-Baha. I think this is likely to be only a perception of events as seen from Haifa. Before he launched his attack, Allenby went to considerable lengths to make the German and Ottoman forces think that he was going to attack on the east of his line, up the Jordan valley towards Damascus. In reality, he was planning to use the coastal plain, which was more suitable for his strong cavalry forces – his tanks having been shipped off to France. Perhaps the Bahais in Haifa also expected the Allies to drive up the Jordan valley. Nor is there any reason to think that the lightening dash of the cavalry up the plain was to rescue Abdu’l-Baha: the objective seems to have been the passes in the Carmel ridge. Allenby’s lightening thrust also made good military sense, for the strengths of his force were its cavalry and control of the air. His advantage was greatest in a mobile war.
One detail of Allenby’s deception is telling. He had TE Lawrence on the eastern end of his line buying huge quantities of unnecessary fodder, for cavalry and pack animals that were not there, in order to persuade the German commander (Otto Liman von Sanders) that a large attack was being prepared. This indicates that there was no shortage of supplies in the territory controlled by the Allies: they could buy large amounts on the market simply to fool the Germans. So they had no need to get supplies from Abdu’l-Baha, and he had no means to get them through the lines from famine-ravaged north Palestine anyway.
On September 25, with Haifa and Akka occupied by the allies, the Chief Political Officer in Palestine could telegraph London:
Reference to your despatch No. 41 of February 1st to High Commissioner on subject of Abdul Behar the leader of Bahai movement. He is now at Haifa, he is in good health and being cared for.
The aftermath of war
Sir Ronald Storrs, the first military Governor of Jerusalem, became the Military Governor of Northern Palestine (and later the Civil Governor of Jerusalem). In a letter to Lady Blomfield he writes:
I met ‘Abdu’l-Baha first in 1900, … When, a few years later, he was released and visited Egypt I had the honour of looking after him and of presenting him to Lord Kitchener, who was deeply impressed by his personality, as who could fail to be?
The war separated us again until Lord Allenby, after his triumphant drive through Syria, sent me to establish the Government at Haifa and throughout that district. I called upon ‘Abbas Effendi on the day I arrived and was delighted to find him quite unchanged. When he came to Jersualem he visited my house and I never failed to visit Him whenever I went to Haifa. His conversation was indeed a remarkable planning, like that of an ancient prophet, far above the perplexities and pettiness of Palestine politics, and elevating all problems into first principles…..(more … )
Another letter to Blomfield gives an indication of British motives for conferring recognition on Abdu’l-Baha:
In 1920 I was appointed as the first High Commissioner … and took an early opportunity of paying a visit to ‘Abdu’l-Baha Effendi at his home in Haifa. I had for some time been interested in the Baha’i Movement, and felt privileged by the opportunity of making the acquaintance of its Head. I had also an official reason as well as a personal one. ‘Abdu’l-Baha had been persecuted by the Turks. A British regime had now been substituted in Palestine for the Turkish. Toleration and respect for all religions had long been a principle of British rule wherever it extended; and the visit of the High Commissioner was intended to be a sign to the population that the adherents of every creed would be able to feel henceforth that they enjoyed the respect and could count upon the good will of the new Government of the land. (more …)
We have seen that General Sir Arthur Money was one of those whom Tudor-Pole had asked to intervene on Abdu’l-Baha’s behalf during the months when the British held Jerusalem, and the Ottoman forces held northern Palestine including Haifa and Akka. General Money became the Chief Administrator of the Southern Occupied Enemy territories, and in this capacity recommended that Abdu’l-Baha should be awarded the order of the British Empire, in July 1919. In the recommendation, Abdu’l-Baha is described as the “Leader and Head of the BAHAI religion which numbers some millions of adherents in Persia, India, America and England.” The ‘Statement of service during the War for which this distinction is recommended’ has been filled in as follows:
Has given consistently loyal service to the British cause since the occupation. His advice has been most valuable to the Military Governor and officers of the Administration in Haifa, where all his influence has been for good. He was for many years placed in captivity by the Turks in the Citadel at Acre.
This recommendation went to the War Office, who passed it to Lord Curzon, who as we have seen had been impressed by the Bahais he encountered in India when he was Viceroy there, and was now Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.
In the correspondence that followed, one staff officer at the Foreign Office suggested that the British Ambassador to Tehran, and the Persian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Nusratu’d-Dawlih, should be consulted. Both of these responded that they saw no objection, and the recommendation was duly passed to the Court for royal approval, given on 29 October 1919. The medal was forwarded to Palestine through military channels, and the investiture ceremony took place on April 27, 1920, with Colonel Stanton, the Governor of Haifa, officiating.
One of those to visit Abdu’l-Baha was the architect and town planner, C.R. Ashbee, who was serving as Civic Adviser to the City of Jerusalem in 1920. Among his impressions in A Palestine Notebook, are a discussion of the uselessness of “glosses, Talmuds, codes of divinity, and clerical law,” of the need for a league of nations, equality of the sexes, and a common language, and of Abdu’l-Baha’s knighthood. Ashbee writes:
When they offered Abbas his title, with whatever bit of ribbon or strip of paper it was accompanied, he said:
‘As it comes from the British Government I accept it, as a teacher of God’s word it will make no difference to me.’
It is pleasant to think that English administrators go to this wise old man for help and counsel. We dined in the evening with Colonel Stanton, the Military Governor of Haifa, Lord Milner, and Herbert Samuel. The two last were rather envious of our afternoon with Abbas, and colonel Stanton told us how he often went to get his advice. ‘Of course,’ he added in the characteristic manner of the British Administrator, ‘I have to listen for half an hour so first to the beauty of the flowers and the wings of the mind; after that we get to business.’ (more …)
Why then was Abdu’l-Baha knighted by the British? First, it should be noted that the knighthood was not unusual: it was raining ribbons at the time, and many honorary knighthoods were awarded to those who were not British subjects, including quite a few Iranians. Abdu’l-Baha was a very well respected local figure.
Shoghi Effendi, himself a participant in the events, says that the British authorities wished to express “their appreciation of the role which ‘Abdu’l-Baha had played in allaying the burden of suffering that had oppressed the inhabitants of the Holy Land during the dark days of that distressing conflict.” (God Passes By, 306). The other documents I have cited point to Abdu’l-Baha’s prestige as a public figure, both locally and world-wide, and to Lady Blomfield’s weight in court circles. Abdu’l-Baha’s chance encounters with Ronald Storrs, Lord Lamington and Lord Kitchener, and Lord Curzon’s positive encounters with the Bahais in India, may all have contributed. In the circles that counted in those days, Abdu’l-Baha was not an unknown quantity. We have also seen that the British authorities in Palestine, such as Reginald Wingate, had given the impression of being rather uninterested in Abdu’l-Baha’s fate, and had been put right on that point by men in London who far outranked them. So perhaps they had some motive for showing that they had heard that message.
Storrs, it will be remembered, wrote (some time later) that “the visit of the High Commissioner” to Abdu’l-Baha was a sign that people of all religions would be treated equally under the British mandate. The recommendation document itself mentions Abdu’l-Baha’s position as head of the Bahai Faith, and says “His advice has been most valuable to the Military Governor and officers of the Administration in Haifa, where all his influence has been for good.” The Handbook of Palestine (1922), a work “issued under the authority of the Governate of Palestine,” and preapred by H.C. Luke, assistant governor of Jerusalem, and E. Keith-Roach, assistant chief secretary to the Governate of Palestine, states (page 59):
The number of Bahais in Palestine is 158. Sir ‘Abbas Effendi Abdu’l-Baha had travelled extensively in Europe and America to expound his doctrines, and on the 4th December, 1919, was created by King George V. a K.B.E. for valuable services rendered to the British Government in the early days of the occupation.
That wording and the date suggest that the Handbook‘s authors had seen the reasons cited when the knighthood was gazetted, but an exhaustive search of the relevant government gazettes has not produced the official announcement, although Adib Masumian was able to help me with a retrospective list of honours awarded to Iranians (click on the greyish images above). However the wording of the official announcement would not necessarily be definitive for the motivations of the British in making the award. The fact that the Handbook refers to Shoghi Effendi as Life-President of the Council of Nine suggests that the authors’ information is from documents (which they have partly misunderstood), not from personal contact with Abdu’l-Baha or the Bahais in Haifa and Akka.
These various reasons are not contradictory. Abdu’l-Baha’s philanthropy no doubt contributed to his standing in Palestine, and that standing would be an additional reason for the new British authorities to consult him, in line with the usual British policy of ruling through and with local notables and institutions in their colonial territories, and to chose him for an honour intended to demonstrate the new era of religious tolerance.
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