We (Maliha & Negar) are great-granddaughters of Baha’u’llah. As sisters growing up in Haifa, in a house only a few blocks away from the Baha’i shrines on Mount Carmel, we witnessed the growth of the Baha’i faith firsthand.
A Lost History of the Baha’i Faith: Foreword by Maliha and Negar Bahai
We are great-granddaughters of Baha’u’llah. As sisters growing up in Haifa, in a house only a few blocks away from the Baha’i shrines on Mount Carmel, we witnessed the growth of the Baha’i faith firsthand. Our cousin, Shoghi Rabbani, was the recognized leader of the Baha’i community, and our home was filled with artifacts of the early days of the faith, such as original calligraphies of Baha’u’llah’s tablets hanging on the walls.
We grew up surrounded by Baha’ism; we believed in the teachings of our distinguished ancestor — yet we, our parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, and numerous cousins, were not allowed to be members of the religious organization bearing his name. We were excluded by our own relatives and their followers because of a difference of opinion about the religion. We were invisible Baha’is. Our very existence was unknown to most of the Baha’i world.
This did not deter us from practicing our faith. Our lives reflect the international and interfaith spirit of Baha’u’llah’s teachings. Maliha married a Muslim man from India and has four children. One son lives in Canada, one daughter in England, one son in Germany, and one son still lives in the subcontinent. Negar married an Israeli Jew, whose distinguished career as an economist enabled them to travel all over the world during his life. Today, she lives in the same childhood home in Haifa, where she celebrates the holidays of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam with her diverse friends.
Our father, Mousa Bahai, was the head of the land registration office in Haifa, and was president of the Haifa Rotary Club for two years running, during the conflict between the Arabs and Jews in 1947-48. Rotary wanted a neutral person and he accepted. He was called upon often to make peace between the two communities. We lived in the mixed quarter and the Jewish Haganah (defense) office was next door. Now the building is destined to be a “Diamond Hotel” which is fashionable in the German [Templar] Colony, inundated by European tourists.
Our mother, Kamar, was a very beautiful woman and had a feisty and assertive personality. She wrote pamphlets and letters to the newspaper about Baha’ism which you will read in this book. Not only that, she took Shoghi Rabbani to court because he had prohibited her and other family members from visiting Baha’u’llah’s tomb. We are proud to say that our mother won; Shoghi settled the case. Because of her courageous action, the whole family now enjoys the right to pray at the Shrine of Baha’u’llah, which is located next to the house where our grandfathers lived much of their lives. Both of our parents were born in this mansion and were married there. We have pictures to that effect.
We are descended from Baha’u’llah on both sides of our family, because our parents were cousins. Marriage between cousins used to be common in the Middle East. In fact, our great-grandmother Fatimah was Baha’u’llah’s cousin and became his second wife. He lived with her and their children in the mansion of Bahji in his later years and called her Mahd-i-‘Ulya, the honorific title of the mother of the Shah of Persia. Our great-grandmother held a place of high honor in the Baha’i faith in those days, and Baha’u’llah was closely involved in the upbringing of their sons.
Our father was the youngest son of Mohammed Ali, who was the eldest son of Baha’u’llah and Mahd-i-‘Ulya. Our mother was a daughter of Badi Ullah, who was Mohammed Ali’s youngest brother. Both of our grandfathers were therefore half-brothers of Abbas Effendi, who was the eldest son of Baha’u’llah by his first wife.
We remember our elder grandfather, Mohammed Ali, as a quiet and prayerful man, a kind soul who never asked much for himself. Contrary to Middle Eastern tradition, he insisted that he and our grandmother not be given any special treatment or deference when they moved in with our parents in their old age; instead, he urged our parents to continue living their lives exactly as before.
This self-deprecating and generous spirit was characteristic of his personality. He was mild-mannered and avoided conflict. He rejected traditions that placed one human being above another. He studied the scriptures dutifully and was highly skilled in the art of calligraphy, and he created many beautiful inscriptions of the inspired verses revealed by his father whom he loved and served his whole life. We recall him always being down on his knees in prayer and among his artwork of calligraphy that he loved.
Negar remembers that when she was three years old, one day our grandfather Mohammed Ali was visiting and forgot to bring a gift that he had promised to bring on his visit. Negar was so disappointed that she slapped him in the face! But he asked our mother not to rebuke her, as he had not kept his promise. The same day, he wrote a verse of poetry especially for Negar, and in later years she appreciated it and was very flattered. It says in Persian, “From your visage springs the Spring.”
Our grandmother, Laqa’iyya, was Mohammed Ali’s cousin, the daughter of Baha’u’llah’s faithful brother Moussa Kalim. She was given a choice to marry either him or Abbas Effendi, and according to the story she told, she chose our grandfather because of his mild manner and his wish to avoid religious debates.
At that time, the unfortunate conflict between Baha’u’llah’s sons was already brewing. This was before Baha’u’llah passed from this world. The brothers had very different personalities and this undoubtedly contributed to their inability to cooperate with each other after their father’s passing. For years beforehand, the branches of the family were drifting apart and preparing for what seemed like inevitable conflict after the unifying and overwhelming personality of the Great Master, Baha’u’llah, departed from the earth.
Jealousies may have played a significant role in the split between the brothers, because they had different mothers and Baha’u’llah lived with his second wife and second family. The story that has been passed down to us is that the families of Baha’u’llah’s second and third wives were kept at a distance during his funeral, while Abbas Effendi’s family was allowed to approach near to the body of Baha’u’llah. This was according to the Shi’ite custom of primogeniture and the primacy of the first wife, which the supporters of Abbas Effendi emphasized. Mahd-i-‘Ulya and her descendants thus saw their position suddenly downgraded and reversed, compared to the egalitarianism and close proximity to Baha’u’llah they enjoyed while he was alive.
Mohammed Ali had many friends of all faiths. One of his best friends was a Christian bishop. He was skeptical of absolute religious authority and did not want to see old patterns of authoritarian religion reemerge in Baha’ism after Baha’u’llah had given his life to free people from the Shi’ite clergy.
This skepticism and concern for individual freedom comes through in his writings, as you will read in this book, but he did not deny that his elder brother, Abbas Effendi, was the legitimate Baha’i leader. He did, however, believe that the focus of Baha’ism should be on the teachings of Baha’u’llah rather than on the charismatic leadership and opinions of any successor. This belief got him into trouble, because in the time and culture of the early Baha’i community — still heavily influenced by Shi’ite Islam — the eldest son was to be obeyed by the rest of the family, not questioned. As often happens between siblings even today, the older brother wanted more authority and respect, while the younger brothers wanted more freedom.
Our grandfather Mohammed Ali has been portrayed in Baha’i literature as a ruthless man who was obsessed with gaining power for himself and destroying Abbas Effendi. From the perspective of those who knew him personally, this is nothing but a laughable caricature. The man we knew was a gentleman whose religious beliefs were focused not on power or who should wield it, but on living according to the teachings of his father, Baha’u’llah, in his private life — a life of prayer, meditation, and cultivating a moderate lifestyle and a humble and kindly spirit.
The source of the dispute was in Baha’u’llah’s will, which says that he had chosen Abbas Effendi as his first successor and then Mohammed Ali. Our grandfather often mentioned Baha’u’llah’s teaching of the virtue of a gentle tongue and the danger of angry speech. Ironically, he was constantly slandered during his lifetime, and his rights and property were taken from him because it was not in his nature to fight back. He had opportunities to defend himself and his rights, but his devotion to Baha’u’llah’s teachings was so uncompromising and his personality so meek that he preferred to endure the injustices he faced with silence and resignation, rather than bringing the Baha’i name into the law courts. This was out of respect, not weakness — respect for the Baha’i faith that was so instilled in his soul.
Our younger grandfather, Badi Ullah, was more outspoken and less willing to tolerate the injustices he saw in his own life and the lives of others in his family. He was a charismatic and gregarious man and resembled, both in personality and appearance, his eldest brother Abbas Effendi. Late in life, he wrote a long memoir in Persian about his experiences with Baha’u’llah and his elder brothers and how the unfortunate conflict developed between them. It has never yet been translated into English or published, but we hope this will be done in the future. We cannot read it — we could have read it in the modern Persian language, but it was written in classical style, which is difficult. We have been told that our grandfather Badi Ullah tells a story which would be very controversial, even shocking, and an important addition to the historical record. We also have a diary by our grandmother Laqa’iyya which we hope will someday be translated.
To sum up, our grandfathers were strong and devoted believers in the Baha’i teachings — just as we are sure our great-uncle Abbas Effendi was as well — and the noble and progressive principles they inherited from Baha’u’llah were passed down to their children and grandchildren. It is sad that all the brothers could not work together for the advancement of the faith they shared, but we hope this book may help to make a start toward healing the wounds of the past that have hindered the Baha’i faith from understanding its own history and potential.
Within the family of Baha’u’llah, some of the descendants of Abbas Effendi are now on friendly terms with us, after many years of the branches of the family having little or no contact because of the lingering religious dispute. Although they still see things differently from us, and even strongly disagree with much of the content of this book, at least we are able to see each other as fellow Baha’is. We hope that all the Baha’is of the world will be able to follow our example of tolerance and reconciliation. If we can do it, you can do it — it is not necessary that Baha’is must always agree on all points of religion, especially about what happened in the past!
Our uncle Shua Ullah, who was our father’s eldest brother, was deeply in love with Abbas Effendi’s daughter Ruha when they were young. He tells this story in the book, as you will read. They wanted to marry each other, but they had to break their engagement because their fathers would not consent to the marriage. The brothers sadly regarded each other as straying from the true path of Baha’i faith, and therefore they would not allow their children to be married.
Religious and family quarrels kept apart these young lovers, who continued to cherish each other for the rest of their lives even though they married other people. Ruha Shahid kept in touch with Negar until her dying day. Ruha herself was expelled from the Baha’i community by her own nephew, Shoghi Rabbani, along with all her sisters, children, nieces and nephews — ironically, because some of them married descendants of Baha’u’llah’s third wife, who were also supposed to be shunned.
To think that this happened among Baha’is! And to think that it happened not just among any Baha’is, but among the immediate family of Baha’u’llah! We are all only human; that is the lesson of this disgrace. Even the people who were the closest to the founder of our great faith could not find a way to overcome their religious differences and they made their children suffer for it. If our uncle Shua and cousin Ruha had gotten married, perhaps this could have brought together the estranged brothers and they would have somehow resolved their disagreements, and the two sides of Baha’u’llah’s family would have been reunited and reconciled. Generations of damage and heartbreak could have been avoided.
We will never know if such an alternative history would have been possible, but it is appropriate at this stage that we contemplate such things. It is beneficial that wounds that have been covered over and never fully healed be finally exposed to the open air of public discussion among the Baha’is, that they may achieve true healing once and for all. Allowing ourselves to reenvision the past might open a window to a better future for the Baha’is and for the world at large.
The lesson is that love is more powerful than doctrine; that humans should be human first and religious second. As our beloved grandfather Mohammed Ali wrote, but could neither fully realize in his own life nor find fully manifested in the life of his brother Abbas Effendi: “We are all from one root and we are, therefore, members of one universal brotherhood; and between brothers nothing should exist which might contradict equity and concord, and from which differences might arise.”
Let the Baha’i faith finally live up to itself. Let it be true to the animating vision of Baha’u’llah — a vision of universal reconciliation for all the people of the world, putting aside the poisonous divisions of religion, the us-versus-them mentality and exclusivity that infects and debases religious organizations. Let the lessons of the past be the foundation of a better future, both for the Baha’is and for all other faiths. In our elder years, that is our hope and our prayer.
Comment by Maliha Bahai
In the mid 1940s, while attending the American University in Beirut, I helped edit and proofread my uncle Shua Ullah’s manuscript about the history and teachings of the Baha’i faith. He wrote it in English with the hope that it should be read widely by a Western audience. After all these years, I am happy that a publisher in the United States has recognized the value of my uncle’s work, and that the effort he put into writing his book can finally bear fruit.
Further Comments by Negar Bahai
In 2006 I was interviewed by two Israeli filmmakers for a documentary called Baha’is In My Backyard. They wanted to talk with a descendant of Baha’u’llah and they found me, even though Dr. Moshe Sharon, Chair of the Department of Baha’i Studies at Hebrew University, told them that there are no living descendants.
The Baha’i organization prefers that people not know that Baha’u’llah has dozens of descendants living all over the world today. Past leaders of the Baha’i community excommunicated nearly all of Baha’u’llah’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Baha’is have been taught by those leaders to believe that the heresy they call “Covenant-breaking” — challenging the absolute authority of the Baha’i leadership — is passed from generation to generation. What is actually passed on are different facts, different memories, and different points of view that the present Baha’is would prefer not to be known and discussed. Therefore they tell their followers that anyone expelled from the Baha’i community must be shunned by the true believers. So they don’t want to admit that people like me exist. Admitting my existence would be inconvenient for them, because it might cause the Baha’is to ask questions and find out things about the history of their religion that the present leaders don’t want them to know. I think the whole thing is rather childish.
In 2010, I received a letter from a young American named Eric Stetson, who explained that he had seen my interview in that film, found my address in an Israeli phone book, and wanted to correspond with me about my family history and the Baha’i faith. He said that he was a former Baha’i who still had an interest in the religion and agreed with many of its teachings. Seeing my interview had caused him to do some research about my grandfather Mohammed Ali and his beliefs and writings, and he was eager to learn more.
Eric and I have corresponded and talked many times since then. I have found him to be humble, open-minded, and a sincere seeker of truth. For many years I had in my possession a manuscript written by my uncle Shua Ullah and pamphlets and letters by my mother — writings that had never been seen by the public — and Eric offered to edit them and find a publisher who would publish them as a book. I am very pleased that he was successful and this book is now in print. After many years, long after they passed from this world, the members of my family can tell their side of the story of the Baha’i faith, and hopefully their story will be heard by Baha’is and independent religious scholars.
I want to thank Eric Stetson for his efforts in editing the manuscripts I provided him, compiling them into this book, and seeing it through the publication process. I also want to thank the publisher, Vox Humri Media, and its president, Brent Mathieu, for agreeing to print this work and funding the project. I owe a debt of gratitude to the fine souls who made this project possible, and of course to my ancestors who wrote down their memories and thoughts about the Baha’i faith and events that happened in their lives, without which this book never could have existed. In my elder years, I can rest in the satisfaction of knowing that their stories will not go untold, their life’s work was not in vain, and future generations will have the opportunity of learning the lessons of their lives and benefiting from their best ideas.
I am not a member of the organized Baha’i community, but that is not identical to the Baha’i Faith — even though they call it by that name, as if the religion were limited to an organization. The spirit of Baha’u’llah and his faith are present in the heart of every person who is a lover of humanity, who associates with the people of all religions with love and kindness, and respects both the diversity and the oneness of the human race. No excommunication is possible from such a broad and beautiful faith.
I was married for many years to Mordechai “Murad” Emsallem. As an Oriental Jew, he understood the Arab culture and spoke the language fluently. He had a company with his Arab friends during the [British] Mandate. Now, as always, I worship God together with my friends who are Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Sometimes I even invite them to hold meetings in my home, and I hold meetings on the Baha’i holy days and my friends attend. In my heart, my soul, my life, and my very genes, I am Baha’i. So were my grandfathers and all my relatives who believed in the faith of Baha’u’llah and lived accordingly.
I know it is difficult for people to change their minds about things they hold dear, especially when it comes to matters of religion and facts about the mythologized figures who were involved in historical dramas. Most people don’t like to see their heroes revealed as less than perfect and their villains rehabilitated — it would ruin the stories they have become used to. I challenge the Baha’is of the world to read this book with an open mind and an unprejudiced heart, as hard as it may be. Readers may find that the story of their faith is actually richer, greater, and more real in light of the perspectives shared by the authors of this book. We cannot know the truth about the Baha’i faith until we are willing to see the important characters of the Baha’i story as human, not as caricatures — whether that means acknowledging their formerly hidden virtues or their flaws — and hear all of their voices.
Although I don’t know whether the Baha’i faith will ever become what I believe my great-grandfather Baha’u’llah intended it to be, the publication of A Lost History of the Baha’i Faith makes it more likely that it could be reformed and the mistakes of its past be corrected. I trust that future histories will record that at least some of its followers and friends were sincere in the pursuit of truth, justice, and the highest principles and ideals.
Posted by Naser Emtesali at 1:51 AM
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