Review

100 years on, a call for tolerance and unity reverberates from 'Abdu'l-Baha's visit to Egypt

In Brief: 
  • A new book, published in Arabic, tells of the impact ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had 100 years ago among prominent Egyptian thinkers
  • The Bahá’í leader’s call for religious tolerance and unity at the time foreshadows conditions in modern Egypt
  • The volume has received high praise from contemporary Arab writers for its scholarship and lessons for today

Abbas Effendi: the Hundredth Anniversary of His Visit to Egypt
By Suheil Bushrui
Al-Kamel publishers
Beirut

Available in print from Al-Kamel or as a free ebook at: http://www.bahai-egypt.org/2011/04/abbas-effendi-egypt.html

A new book by a noted Arab scholar suggests the idea of a “clash of civilizations” between the Muslim East and the Christian West were of considerable concern 100 years ago in Egypt — and that a visiting Bahá’í leader did much to calm the waters and show a path to reconciliation.

Written by University of Maryland Professor Suheil Bushrui, and recently published by Al-Kamel publishers in Beirut, Abbas Effendi: the Hundredth Anniversary of His Visit to Egypt introduces the life and work of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to a modern Arabic-speaking audience that, up until now, has remained largely unaware of His legacy to their society.

During His stay in Alexandria, between September 1910 and August 1911, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá conversed with Egyptians from all walks of life about the fundamental principles required for the building of a peaceful and prosperous society. Abbas Effendi, known more commonly as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, was the son of Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith. He led the Bahá’í community after the passing of His father, from 1892-1921.

“It was important to present ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, not necessarily as a religious leader,” said Professor Bushrui, “but more as a great mind who was able to convey an understanding of the importance of religion at a time when materialistic civilization was prevailing in Europe and America, and the Muslim world was overcome with political and other ambitions.”

“I have to say — even for me as a lifelong Bahá’í — through the writing of this book I have come to be far more aware of the unique personality of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and His immense achievement in promoting cultural and religious dialogue between the worlds of the East and the West,” he said.

The volume has been winning high praise from a number of prominent Arab thinkers, whose appreciation of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá echoes that of their counterparts a century ago.

Internationally recognized Middle East expert Edmund Ghareeb has described the book as “a pioneering and highly informative work.”

“Abbas Effendi is a superbly careful and informative piece of scholarship,” wrote Dr. Ghareeb, “which makes a major contribution to knowledge of the Middle East at a crucial period of its modern history, and adds considerably to our knowledge of this unique reformer.”

In a review published in the Lebanese daily newspaper As-Safir, author Mahmud Shurayh said ‘Abdu’l-Bahá “found no embarrassment in teaching the messages of Christ and Muhammad in the Jewish synagogues, the message of Muhammad in Christian churches and the message of religion in atheist assemblies, because He saw in the union of east and west a portal to a new world where justice, unity and peace reign.”

The distinguished Lebanese poet Henri Zoghaib commented that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was the first to initiate a serious dialogue among religions.

“With this book...,” wrote Mr. Zoghaib, “I discovered the nature of the teachings that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had disseminated concerning the oneness of East and West, and of His message calling for the oneness of religions.”

‘Abdu’l-Bahá sailed from the Holy Land to Port Said at the end of August 1910, some 50 years after the Bahá’í Faith had first been taken to Egypt by Bahá’í merchants from Iran. Following initial experiences of persecution, a modest community was established, made up of Iranians and native Egyptians. But the Bahá’í Faith was viewed with suspicion by many, including the local press and Persian-language newspapers published in Egypt.

Although he intended to rest in Egypt for a month, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá stayed for an entire year because of health concerns. He also believed He had a mission to accomplish in Egypt, said Prof. Bushrui. “Firstly, to revive the truth and purity of religious faith — whether Muslim or Christian — and, secondly, to bring East and West together.”

His visit resulted in a profound change of attitude of Egyptians towards the Bahá’í Faith at the time, particularly on the part of the press.

“Whosoever has consorted with [‘Abdu’l-Bahá] has seen in Him a man exceedingly well-informed, whose speech is captivating, who attracts minds and souls, who is dedicated to belief in the oneness of mankind…” wrote the newspaper, al-Mu’ayyad, whose editors had previously been antagonistic towards the Faith.

In addition to journalists, numerous prominent Egyptians sought out ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. These included clerics, parliamentarians and aristocrats, among them the last Khedive of Egypt and Sudan — Abbas Hilmi Pasha — who exhibited particular reverence towards Him.

“There was also a very significant meeting with the jurist and scholar Muhammad Abduh,” said Prof. Bushrui. “He admired ‘Abdu’l-Bahá greatly and wrote Him a letter. When you read it, you can see it’s from someone who recognized that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had a special divine light in his heart and mind.”

Abbas Effendi begins with an extended, introductory essay charting the life and work of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and his stay in Egypt. The book then moves to an anthology of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s letters and lectures in Arabic, examples of the press coverage of His visit, an epilogue examining His legacy to the Bahá’í community today, and statements about Him by Egyptians and other prominent Arab admirers.

Prof. Bushrui also describes how ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s influence extended further afield into the Arabic-speaking world. “For example, in the Will and Testament of the founding father of Arab-American literature, Ameen Rihani, we find this: ‘I am a believer in the unity of religion, for in its mirror, I see reflected the images of all Prophets and Messengers — Confucius, Buddha, Zoroaster, Socrates, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad and Bahá’u’lláh... In practical terms, religion is, above all, the recognition of the Divine Truth spoken by whoever has taught a single letter taken from the book of love, of piety and of charitable deeds.’”

Ameen Rihani’s niece — May Rihani — has acclaimed Abbas Effendi as a “gift to humanity,” describing Him as “an enlightened messenger, an inspiring voice, and a profound advocate for world peace, the unity of religions, and genuine in-depth dialogue between the East and the West.”

“We need ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s voice more than ever before in these present turbulent times of religious fanaticism, misunderstandings among the cultures of the world, and an easy readiness for confrontation,” said Ms. Rihani, who is senior vice president and director of the Global Learning Group at the Academy for Educational Development, which is based in Washington D.C.

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