January 13, 2011

The Shírázi youth who became a cellmate of Bahá’u’lláh in the Siyáh-Chál (the Black Pit) of Tihrán

One of the Babis who was arrested in 1852 in Tihran, Persia, in the uproar that ensued when two misguided Babis attempted to take the life of the Shah, was a Shirazi youth by the name of ‘Abdu’l-Vahhab. The story of this glorious youth, whose heart brimmed with love for his Lord, Baha’u’llah, has been told by both Bahá'u'lláh Himself and by 'Abdu'l-Bahá. Nabil, the great Baha’i historian, has also recorded it in his book, The Dawn-Breakers.

‘Abdu’l-Vahhab’s attraction to the new religion is an amazing example of the influence of dreams in the lives of those early believers.

One day, as one of the “Letters of the Living” (a title conferred on the first 18 disciples to recognize the Bab), by the name of Mulla 'Aliy-i-Bastami, was leaving Shiraz for Iraq, as instructed by the Bab, he was overtaken by ‘Abdu’l-Vahhab, who tearfully entreated him to allow him to accompany him on his journey.

‘Abdu’l-Vahhab told him: “Perplexities oppress my heart; I pray you to guide my steps in the way of Truth. Last night in my dream, I heard the crier announce in the market-street of Shiraz the appearance of the Imam 'Ali, the Commander of the Faithful. He called to the multitude: ‘Arise and seek him. Behold, he plucks out of the burning fire charters of liberty and is distributing them to the people. Hasten to him, for whoever receives them from his hands will be secure from penal suffering, and whoever fails to obtain them from him, will be bereft of the blessings of Paradise.’” ‘Abdu’l-Vahhab further told Mulla ‘Ali that in his dream, immediately after he heard the voice of the crier, he arose and, abandoning his shop, ran across the market street of Vakil to a place where he saw Mulla ‘Ali standing and distributing those same charters to the people.

He told him that in his dream he saw that everyone who approached Mulla ‘Ali to receive the papers that he was distributing, upon hearing from Mulla ‘Ali certain words, would flee in consternation and exclaim: “Woe betide me, for I am deprived of the blessings of 'Ali and his kindred! Ah, miserable me, that I am accounted among the outcast and fallen!”

‘Abdu’l-Vahhab then told ‘Mulla Ali that “I awoke from my dream and, immersed in an ocean of thought, regained my shop. Suddenly I saw you pass, accompanied by a man who wore a turban, and who was conversing with you. I sprang from my seat and, impelled by a power which I could not repress, ran to overtake you. To my utter amazement. I found you standing upon the very site which I had witnessed in my dream, engaged in the recital of traditions and verses. Standing aside, at a distance, I kept watching you, wholly unobserved by you and your friend. I heard the man whom you were addressing, impetuously protest: ‘Easier is it for me to be devoured by the flames of hell than to acknowledge the truth of your words, the weight of which mountains are unable to sustain!’ To his contemptuous rejection you returned this answer: ‘Were all the universe to repudiate His truth, it could never tarnish the unsullied purity of His robe and grandeur.’ Departing from him, you directed your steps towards the gate of Kaziran [Kazirun]. I continued to follow you until I reached this place.”

Mulla 'Ali tried to appease ‘Abdu’l-Vahhab’s troubled heart and to persuade him to return to his shop and resume his daily work. 'Your association with me,' he urged, 'would involve me in difficulties. Return to Shiraz and rest assured, for you are accounted of the people of salvation. Far be it from the justice of God to withhold from so ardent and devoted a seeker the cup of His grace, or to deprive a soul so athirst from the billowing ocean of His Revelation.'

The words of Mulla 'Ali, however, proved to no avail. The more he insisted upon his return the louder grew ‘Abdu’l-Vahhab’s lamentation and weeping. Mulla 'Ali finally felt compelled to comply with his wish and resigning himself to the will of God continued with his plans to proceed towards Iraq accompanied by ‘Abdu’l-Vahhab.

In the meantime, the father of ‘Abdu’l-Vahhab heard the news that his son had closed his shop and left the city. He became very angry and offended, wondering how he could tolerate such unseemly behavior. Upon inquiring he was told that ‘Abdu’l-Vahhab was seen going towards the Kazirun gate of the city, accompanied by a man wearing a turban. ‘Abdu’l-Vahhab’s father, picked up a club, intended to physically punish his son for his reckless and socially unacceptable behavior, and ran in the direction of the Kazirun gate. Nothing but the severest chastisement, he felt, could wipe away the effect of his son's disgraceful conduct.

It should be mentioned that ‘Abdu’l-Vahhab’s father held a very prestigious position in Shiraz. He was among the favored one in the court of the sons of the governor of the province of Fars [Shiraz its capital city]. As such, he was fairly powerful. None dared to question his authority or ventured to interfere with his freedom. The governor himself was very powerful since he was a son of Fath-'Ali Shah, the second Qajar king of Persia.

Let’s listen to ‘Abdu’l-Vahhab’s father who related the rest of the story many years later to Nabil, the great Baha’i historian:

“I continued my search until I reached them. Seized with a savage fury, I inflicted upon Mulla 'Ali unspeakable injuries. To the strokes that fell heavily upon him, he, with extraordinary serenity, returned this answer: ‘Stay your hand, O 'Abdu'l-Majid [the father of 'Abdu'l-Vahhab], for the eye of God is observing you. I take Him as my witness, that I am in no wise responsible for the conduct of your son. I mind not the tortures you inflict upon me, for I stand prepared for the most grievous afflictions in the path I have chosen to follow. Your injuries, compared to what is destined to befall me in the future, are as a drop compared to the ocean. Verily, I say, you shall survive me, and will come to recognize my innocence. Great will then be your remorse, and deep your sorrow.’ Scorning his remarks, and heedless of his appeal, I continued to beat him until I was exhausted. Silently and heroically he endured this most undeserved chastisement at my hands. Finally, I ordered my son to follow me, and left Mulla 'Ali to himself.”

“On our way back to Shiraz, my son related to me the dream he had dreamt. A feeling of profound regret gradually seize me. The blamelessness of Mulla 'Ali was vindicated in my eyes, and the memory of my cruelty to him continued long to oppress my soul. Its bitterness lingered in my heart until the time when I felt obliged to transfer my residence from Shiraz to Baghdad.”

Nabil explains how ‘Abdu’l-Vahhab’s father would often recount, with eyes filled with tears, this unfortunate story, expressing how deeply he regretted the deed he committed and asking believers to pray that God may grant him the remission of his sin.

In the year 1851 ‘Abdu’l-Vahhab set up a shop in Kazimayn, the holy city adjacent to Baghdad. That was the same year that Baha’u’llah was in Iraq on the advice of Mirza Taqi Khan, the Persian Prime Minister. Since Kazimayn with its two sacred shrines was frequently visited by Bahá'u'lláh, it was inevitable that ‘Abdu’l-Vahhab should encounter Bahá'u'lláh. This happened and he became fervently attached to Baha’u’llah. Now he knew no peace save in the presence of Bahá'u'lláh, Who was still known only as Jinab-i-Baha by the Bábís, and as Mirza Husayn-'Aliy-i-Nuri by the world at large – since this was many years before Baha’u’llah’s declaration in Baghdad in 1863. Mirza 'Abdu'l-Vahhab's dearest wish was to travel back to Iran in the company of Bahá'u'lláh. But Bahá'u'lláh persuaded him to remain where he was, with his father, and gave him a sum of money to enlarge and extend his trade.

Due to the intensity of his attraction to Baha’u’llah ‘Abdu’l-Vahhab, however, did not heed Baha’u’llah’s advice and followed Him to Tihran. He reached the capital at the time when the misguided attempt to take the life of the Shah had been made and as a result Tihran was in turmoil.

‘Abdu'l-Bahá, relates in a Tablet the story of this glorious youth. He indicates that while the officials were searching everywhere for the Bábís they came upon 'Abdu'l-Vahhab, who undaunted, was giving praise to his Lord in the market-place. He was seized and thrown into the Siyah-Chal, the notorious Black Pit where a number of the Babis, including Baha’u’llah were imprisoned. You can imagine the joy of ‘Abdu’l-Vahhab to at last see his Lord again! 'Abdu'l-Vahhab had, at long last, found that repose, that peace of heart and mind which his whole being craved, for he was then continuously in the presence of his Lord. He was even chained to Bahá'u'lláh!

Many years later Bahá'u'lláh told Nabil the circumstances pertaining to the martyrdom of this God-intoxicated youth:

“We were awakened one night, ere break of day, by Mirza 'Abdu'l-Vahhab-i-Shirazi, who was bound with Us to the same chains. He had left Kazimayn and followed Us to Tihran, where he was arrested and thrown into prison. He asked Us whether We were awake, and proceeded to relate to Us his dream. ‘I have this night,’ he said, ‘been soaring into a space of infinite vastness and beauty. I seemed to be uplifted on wings that carried me wherever I desired to go. A feeling of rapturous delight filled my soul. I flew in the midst of that immensity with a swiftness and ease that I cannot describe.’ ‘Today,’ We replied, ‘it will be your turn to sacrifice yourself for this Cause. May you remain firm and steadfast to the end. You will then find yourself soaring in that same limitless space of which you dreamed, traversing with the same ease and swiftness the realm of immortal sovereignty, and gazing with that same rapture upon the Infinite Horizon.’

“That morning saw the gaoler again enter Our cell and call out the name of 'Abdu'l-Vahhab. Throwing off his chains, he sprang to his feet, embraced each of his fellow-prisoners, and, taking Us into his arms, pressed Us lovingly to his heart. That moment We discovered that he had no shoes to wear. We gave him Our own, and, speaking a last word of encouragement and cheer, sent him forth to the scene of his martyrdom. Later on, his executioner came to Us, praising in glowing language the spirit which that youth had shown. How thankful We were to God for this testimony which the executioner himself had given!” (Baha’u’llah, quoted in the Dawn-Breakers, p. 663)

Thus died 'Abdu'l-Vahhab, a simple youth from Shiraz.

In his book, Baha’u’llah the King of Glory, Hand of the Cause Mr. Balyuzi explains how some sixty years after the martyrdom of ‘Abdu’l-Vahhab, the Master, 'Abdu'l-Bahá, related the story of this Shirazi youth to a number of American Baha’is in the United States while He was in that country. Among those present was Lua Getsinger (whom the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith has honoured with the designation of the 'mother teacher of the West'). The crucial moment when 'Abdu'l-Vahhab took leave of Bahá'u'lláh to go to his martyrdom is captured by Juliet Thompson:

“Suddenly, ‘Abdul-Baha's whole aspect changed. It was as though the spirit of the martyr had entered into Him. With His head thrillingly erect, snapping His fingers high in the air, beating on the porch with His foot till we could scarcely endure the vibrations set up - such electric power radiated from Him - He sang the martyr's song, ecstatic and tragic beyond anything I had ever heard. This was what the Cause meant then! This was what it meant to live near Him! Another realm opened to me – the realm of Divine Tragedy.

'And thus,' ended 'Abdul Baha, 'singing and dancing he went to his death - and a hundred executioners fell on him! And later his old parents came to Baha'u'llah, praising God that their son had given his life in the Path of God!'

He sank back in His chair. Tears swelled in my eyes, blurring everything. When they cleared I saw a yet stranger look on His face. His eyes were unmistakably fixed on the invisible. They were as brilliant as jewels and so filled with delight that they almost made His vision real to us. A smile of exultation played on His lips. Very low, so that it sounded like an echo, he hummed the martyr's song. 'See!' He exclaimed, 'the effect that the death of a martyr has in the world. It has changed my condition.'

There was a moment of silence; then He said: 'What is it, Juliet, that you are pondering so deeply?' 'I was thinking of the look on your face when you said that your condition was changed. I was thinking I had seen a flash of the joy of God over those who die happily for humanity.'”

Haji 'Abdu'l-Majid, the father of 'Abdu'l-Vahhab -- who inflicted such hard punishment on Mulla 'Aliy-i-Bastami -- and his wife, took unhesitatingly the same path as their glorious son, as soon as they came face to face with Bahá'u'lláh. (Adapted from: ‘The Dawn-Breakers’, by Nabil; ‘Baha’u’llah – The King of Glory’, by Balyuzi; ‘Abdu’l-Baha – The Center of the Covenant’, by Balyuzi)