As the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic put the world at a standstill, it seems like life was paused in order to allow us some time to reflect on the current conditions of the world and to reevaluate what is important to us. Even though this time is very challenging, it is also rich in opportunities that we are yet to discover. As a Baha’i, I try to make sense of this uncertain time by looking at it through the lens of spiritual and historical perspectives.
From a spiritual point of view, I personally see this time like an extension of the month of the Baha’i Fast. In the upcoming months, we will experience some deprivation, and will have to practice moderation, generosity, and patience. Just like during the Fast, this is a time where we can deeply reflect on how the current situation can help us better connect to the principles of the Baha’i Faith, and how we can better serve humanity.
In these days, we may choose, more often than before, to refer to special prayers to seek help and guidance. In the Tablet of Ahmad, Baha’u’llah says:
Remember My days during Thy days, and My distress and banishment in this remote prison.
This verse prompts me to draw parallels between the events in the history of our Faith and the current situation we find ourselves in. So if I’m worried about a few weeks that I have to stay home in comfort and in the company of Netflix (ha, ha, ha) I mean my family, then perhaps I should remember how Baha’u’llah and His companions had to stay in the confinement on the prison of Akka for over two years. If you’ve been on pilgrimage and had the privilege to see it, you know that the cell which Baha’u’llah occupied was no larger in size than a typical walk-in closet of many American households. And if it troubles me that we can not shake each other’s hands and have to maintain a distance of six feet between us, then what about those early pilgrims who spent two months walking from Persia to Akka to meet the Blessed Beauty but were denied access to the city, and only had an opportunity to see Him through the window of His cell at a great distance, wave their hands to Him and return home?1
Many countries have closed their borders and some family members are separated without certainty of when they will be reunited again. Thank God many of us have means of staying in touch through Skype or Viber. However, this was definitely not the case at the time when the Bab was exiled from Shiraz. He had to separate from His very young wife whom He just married, and His respected mother. Unfortunately, they were never reunited with Him. In fact, for the longest time, these two most important women in His life remained unaware of His execution.2 In another instance, Baha’u’llah, even though exiled along with His family, had to leave behind His youngest son Mirza Mihdi, who was about three years of age, due to the boy’s health issues. The family was afraid that the long arduous journey from Tihran to Baghdad during the harsh winter months would endanger his life. Mirza Mihdi was reunited with the rest of the family eight years later.3 Such a lengthy separation of a child from his parents would have been very hard, even in our days when we have technology to keep us connected. Then how much harder was it to go through something like this in the middle of the 19th century when such technology did not exist?
During a voluntary self-isolation, I am still able to go shop for essentials or out for a walk, however, during His imprisonment in Akka, this was not an option for Baha’u’llah. We can all imagine how exuberantly happy He was, when after seven years of house arrest, Baha’u’llah first stepped into the Ridvan Garden, so lovingly prepared for Him by Abdu’l-Baha to enjoy lush greenery.
This year my Baha’i community, as with so many others, felt setback when our Naw-Ruz celebrations had to be canceled because of the spread of the Coronavirus. Nonetheless, many communities throughout the world were able to hold celebrations online. But if we look at the history of our Faith, there were countless Naw-Ruz festivals that our Prophets had to celebrate within prison walls. For example, during His confinement in the castle of Mah-Ku, there was one rare instance when the Bab was permitted to have visitors stay with Him for an extended period of time on the occasion of the New Year holiday. It was the last Naw-Ruz of His earthly life.
Today if we lament the fact that we have to stay home with all the amenities and in the company of our loved ones, perhaps we might find it helpful to remember the Bab. Deprived of any comfort, in the bitter cold of winter months when His beard would be covered with ice after His ablutions4, and His hands frozen and unable to write any longer, the Bab could not even have a lamp to light His room. During the majority of His imprisonment at Mah-Ku He had only one companion, Siyyid Husayn-i-Yazdi.5 And if I run out of provisions and supplies, all I have to do is order what I need with a click of mouse. My orders will be delivered to my door in a matter of hours. However the Bab had to order supplies through a trusted attendant, and He would have to wait for His order for weeks, if not months. On one occasion the Bab ordered that some honey be purchased for Him. When it was delivered, the Bab was disappointed because the honey was overpriced. He asked that the honey be returned, and counselled that merchants must not overcharge for their items.6 This is something we can relate to in this time of crisis, when retailers have raised prices for the most needed items.
Lastly this time of global distress makes me think of the heroes of Shaykh Tabarsi. Isolated inside the fort, and deprived of any provisions, they resorted to eating leather belts and grass, but they did not allow their spirits to dampen or their minds to forget the great purpose they had to fulfill.7 They sacrificed a great deal for us, the future generations of Baha’is who would carry the banner of unity throughout the world. Let us be inspired by their heroism and sacrifices, and led by their example, let us spread the Teachings of Baha’u’llah through which mankind will find solace. Baha’u’llah gives us this prayer we can use in times of trials:
O Thou Whose tests are a healing medicine to such as are nigh unto Thee, Whose sword is the ardent desire of all them that love Thee, Whose decree is the sole hope of them that have recognized Thy truth! I implore Thee, by Thy divine sweetness and by the splendors of the glory of Thy face, to send down upon us from Thy retreats on high that which will enable us to draw nigh unto Thee. Set, then, our feet firm, O My God, in Thy cause, and enlighten our hearts with the effulgence of Thy knowledge, and illumine our breasts with the brightness of Thy names.8