Abdu’l-Baha was the eldest son of Baha’u’llah who referred to Him as “the Mystery of God” and “a shelter for all mankind”, however Abdu’l-Baha preferred to be called “Abdu’l-Baha” which means “the Servant of Baha” in reference to His servitude to Baha’u’llah. When Abdu’l-Baha passed away on 28 November 1921, He was eulogized as One who led humanity to the “Way of Truth,” as a “pillar of peace” and the embodiment of “glory and greatness.”
An Introduction to the Will and Testament of Abdu’l-Baha
As the Baha’i world prepares to commemorate the centenary of Abdu’l-Baha’s ascension and anticipates the construction of His shrine and final resting place, the time is ripe to review His talks and writings (which you can find online here at the Baha’i Reference Library). One of His most important writings is the Will and Testament, in which He appoints a successor and provides instructions on the administration of the global Baha’i community. To aid in the study of this crucial document, this article discusses its significance, its historical context, and its main themes.
Significance of the Will and Testament
By naming His grandson Shoghi Effendi as His successor, the Will and Testament of Abdu’l-Baha ensured that the Baha’i Faith would not be splintered by competing power-seekers after His passing. The Will and Testament thereby protects the Baha’i Covenant, “an agreement to accept the chain of succession which has taken place since the time of Baha’u’llah.” 1
Moreover, beyond the question of Abdu’l-Baha’s immediate successor, by laying out a plan for the formation of the Universal House of Justice, the Will and Testament ensured the continuity of succession for the rest of the Baha’i Dispensation. Because of its role in defining Baha’i administration, Shoghi Effendi called it and the Kitab-i-Aqdas “twin repositories” of “the Sovereignty which the Baha’i teachings foreshadow.” 2 He also named it one of three administrative “charters,” along with the Tablet of Carmel and the Tablets of the Divine Plan. 3 Similarly, David Hofman, a former member of the Universal House of Justice, remarked:
[T]he Will and Testament is the clear and authentic charter of this [World] Order [of Baha’u’llah]; it establishes its institutions and defines its relationships. Through this document the rights of all are protected, authority is upheld and power delegated. It is no less than the charter of world civilization, the Bill of Rights of all mankind. 4
With these testimonies to its significance in mind, let’s turn to the history of this “Bill of Rights of all mankind.”
History of the Will and Testament
Abdu’l-Baha wrote the Will and Testament in three parts between 1901 and 1908. 5 Although He did not record a date for each part, He seems to have written each when facing particular onslaughts from His enemies—such as His disloyal kin in collusion with the Ottoman authorities—since He refers to the tribulations they inflicted. With His life in danger, Abdu’l-Baha selected Shoghi Effendi, a descendent of both Baha’u’llah and the Bab, as successor:
After the passing away of this wronged one, it is incumbent…to turn unto Shoghi Effendi—the youthful branch branched from the two hallowed and sacred Lote-Trees and the fruit grown from the union of the two offshoots of the Tree of Holiness,—as he is the sign of God, the chosen branch, the Guardian of the Cause of God… 6
When Abdu’l-Baha passed away in 1921, His choice of successor was revealed, first to Shoghi Effendi, and then to the Baha’i world. According to Shoghi Effendi’s biography, the Will and Testament was read to him after he arrived in Haifa in late December 1921. The first official reading to Baha’is occurred shortly thereafter on January 3, 1922, followed by another reading on January 7. Copies were sent to the Baha’is in the East, and later Shoghi Effendi translated the Will and Testament into English so it could be read by Westerners.
At the time of Abdu’l-Baha’s passing, the appointment of Shoghi Effendi was the most urgent theme addressed by the Will and Testament. But it also deals with a number of other themes, including Baha’i global administration, the sanctity of the Covenant, and spiritual requirements for Baha’is.
The Will and Testament introduces several new institutions to the Administrative Order that Baha’u’llah founded. The first is the Guardianship, the role assigned to Shoghi Effendi. As Abdu’l-Baha explains, the Guardian would be aided by Hands of the Cause, whom he would appoint. The Guardian was also to work with the Universal House of Justice.
In describing the process for electing the Universal House of Justice, Abdu’l-Baha names a second new institution: the “secondary Houses of Justice,” what we now know as National Spiritual Assemblies. 6 As David Hofman points out, “The Universal and Local Houses were designed by Baha’u’llah, but it is the Master who institutes the intermediary or secondary body.” 4
A third new institution mentioned in the Will and Testament is a Supreme Tribunal, which “shall include members from all the governments and peoples of the world.” 6 As Shoghi Effendi explained, such a tribunal will play an important judicial role in the world commonwealth that Baha’u’llah foretold. 7
The Will and Testament also elaborates upon institutions already introduced by Baha’u’llah—in particular, it explains the functions of the Universal House of Justice.
The Will and Testament repeatedly underscores the imperative of firmness in the Covenant, contrasting the damage done by disloyalty with the unity enabled by loyalty. Cautioning believers against disloyalty, Abdu’l-Baha recounts the shameful plots hatched by several of his half-brothers, who were jealous that Baha’u’llah appointed Him Center of the Covenant. Supplicating God to aid Him in withstanding their machinations, Abdu’l-Baha entreats, “Graciously assist me, through my love for Thee, that I may drink deep of the chalice that brimmeth over with faithfulness to Thee and is filled with Thy bountiful Grace.” 6
Since Abdu’l-Baha is considered the Perfect Exemplar of Baha’u’llah’s teachings, His focus on faithfulness in the face of tribulations can be taken as a model for all of us to follow in regard to the Covenant. Indeed, He repeatedly praises those who in spite of tests “stand fast and firm in the Covenant!” 8 Abdu’l-Baha affirms that Baha’is must turn towards the Center of the Covenant, including both the Guardian and the Universal House of Justice. 8
Beyond firmness in the Covenant, Abdu’l-Baha sets forth several other expectations for Baha’is, including teaching and fellowship.
Regarding teaching, Abdu’l-Baha instructs Baha’is to spread the message of Baha’u’llah around the world like the Apostles of Christ for the sake of “the guidance of the nations and peoples of the world.” 8 He also proclaims teaching the principles of the Baha’i Faith to be the greatest of God’s gifts and the first obligation of believers. 8
About fellowship and other virtues Baha’is must attain, Abdu’l-Baha provides the now well-known passage that begins, “In this sacred Dispensation, conflict and contention are in no wise permitted.” 8 This passage includes such memorable exhortations as, “Consort with all the peoples, kindreds and religions of the world with the utmost truthfulness, uprightness, faithfulness, kindliness, good-will and friendliness.” 8
To help the Baha’is achieve these lofty virtues, Abdu’l-Baha reveals several prayers within the Will and Testament, including the supplication for steadfastness beginning with “O Lord, my God! Assist Thy loved ones to be firm in Thy Faith, to walk in Thy ways, to be steadfast in Thy Cause.” 8
I hope this introduction to the Will and Testament of Abdu’l-Baha assists you in your study of this momentous charter of the Baha’i Faith. For more information, I recommend checking out David Hofman’s “Will and Testament of Abdu’l-Baha: A Commentary” from Baha’i World, Vol. 9 (1940-1944), pp. 248-260 (you can find it online here).
Layli invites you to read more of her essays on https://layli.net. She lives with her husband, Sergey, in Alabama, where she works at Auburn University. In moments when she’s not writing, she most enjoys taking strolls with Sergey, during which they admire the region's natural beauty, from its year-round verdure to its abundant bugs.