- Ayyam-i-Ha is a Baha’i festival that is joyously celebrated in countries and territories all over the world. It is a time of hospitality, generosity, and caring for the needy. This year Ayyam-i-Ha runs from February 26-29.
In 1912, Hudson Maxim, the one-handed American inventor of explosives, went to see Abdu’l-Baha at His hotel in New York. It’s possible that his morning interview with the “Prophet of Peace” was a kind of reconnaissance mission for the great scientist, research for his work of war: know thy enemy. Elements of their conversation read like a comedy of opposites:
“What do you think of modern warfare?” demanded Maxim.
“Everything that prevents war is good,” replied Abdu’l-Baha.
“Do you consider the next great national war necessary?” Maxim asked.
“Why not try peace for awhile?” Abdu’l-Baha answered. “If we find war is better, it will not be difficult to fight again.”
The combative approach Maxim took was met with a gentle, finding-the-good-ness spirit in Abdu’l-Baha, which Maxim seems to have found hostile in its mildness. He resorted to drawing a picture for Abdu’l-Baha of the range of an exploded bomb, to illustrate the physical limitations of its destruction.
This man was a product of his age, thoroughly believing and, in fact, invested in the vain imaginings of 19th-century theories about war. The Master turned to the light in Hudson Maxim, appealing to him to use his exceptional talents in instead “invent[ing] guns of love” that “God will be pleased with you and from every standpoint of estimation you will be a perfect man.” 1
This story serves as a contrast to the entirely different sentiments and circumstances surrounding the introduction, in the same city and during the same year, of our real subject: the meeting of a young Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran and that life-long Prisoner from Persia Abdu’l-Baha.
Far from justifying the business of mutual human destruction, Kahlil Gibran for years sought common ground between peoples. As a student, at the turn of the century, he had devised “plans for a Beirut opera house with two domes symbolizing the reconciliation of Christianity and Islam.” 2 It was no wonder that he was drawn to Abdu’l-Baha’s universal message of the oneness of religions:
All the divine Manifestations have proclaimed the oneness of God and the unity of mankind… The fundamental truth of the Manifestations is peace. This underlies all religion, all justice… Read the Gospel and the other Holy Books. You will find their fundamentals are one and the same. Therefore, unity is the essential truth of religion and, when so understood, embraces all the virtues of the human world.Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, US Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1982 second edition, page 32
Suheil Bushrui and Joe Jenkins, biographers of Gibran, note, “Coming from a part of the world that only twenty years before his birth had been convulsed by religious strife, [he] constantly expressed his conviction that beneath the various forms of religion was an underlying unity” 3
Raised in poverty, with no means for formal education, as a child Kahlil Gibran had been visited frequently by priests, who, it seems, took it upon themselves to teach him the Bible in addition to reading and writing the Arabic and Syriac languages. He grew up to be a lover of His Holiness the Christ. “For Gibran Jesus was the supreme figure of all ages: ‘My art can find no better resting place than the personality of Jesus. His life is the symbol of Humanity. He shall always be the supreme figure of all ages and in Him we shall always find mystery, passion, love, imagination, tragedy, beauty, romance and truth.’” 4
Gibran’s portrait of the Christ evolved through his writings and the years, culminating in what some consider his work of greatest spiritual intensity: Jesus, the Son of Man. He began writing it, with a tiny bit of kismet, on the commemoration of the Birth of Baha’u’llah in 1926 5, and he spent the last of his failing energy finishing it before his death in 1931. In Gibran’s mind, Jesus was a “raging tempest” of strength, 6 “the most ‘real personality’ in human history, ‘a man of might and will, a man of charity and pity’.” 3
His meeting with Abdu’l-Baha was an inspiration to and template for Gibran in his attempts to capture the personality of Christ in his writings, as he envisioned Him: “For centuries Humanity has been worshiping weakness in the person of the Savior. The Nazarene was not weak! He was strong and is strong! But people refuse to heed the true meaning of strength.” 6
Abdu’l-Baha and Kahlil Gibran were both known as “the Master”, the former to Baha’is and the latter to followers of his existential poetry. They met through Juliet Thompson, an early American Baha’i, when Abdu’l-Baha was almost 68 and Gibran 29 years old. Of The Mystery of God, poetic Gibran declared: “For the first time I saw form noble enough to be a receptacle for the Holy Spirit.” 7
Juliet says, with characteristic bluntness, “How Gibran got in touch with the Baha’i Cause: I’ll just frankly tell you the story, just as it was. I hastened to tell him; he listened.” (source) The two artists lived across the street from each other, in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, an area that had already become a haven for artists and writers. West 10th Street is lined on both sides with mostly tall residential brownstones (and, now, parked cars) and fringed with an assortment of trees whose branches and leaves arch towards each other to create a corridor of variegated greens.
Since they were close neighbours (Juliet at number 48 and Kahlil at number 51), and considering Juliet’s effervescent personality, it is no surprise that they became “very, very great friends.” “Kahlil always said [Juliet] was his first friend in New York.” 8 She, for her part, infuriated him by saying that he was the “spitting image” of Charlie Chaplin. 8 Her friendship, however exasperating, extended to a fervent encouragement of not only his writing but also his drawings.
After meeting the Baha’i leader upon His arrival in the United States, Gibran requested, and was granted, permission to draw a portrait of Abdu’l-Baha. The session began very early, at 6:30 am, on 19 April, only four days after the Titanic sunk and eight days after Abdu’l-Baha landed in New York. It is no wonder that Kahlil was plagued with insomnia the night before. On the one hand, the magnitude of the nautical disaster and the epic, tragic loss of life had shaken everyone to the core. On the other hand, the young mystic poet was perhaps in awe of the prospect of being in such close contact with the son of One Whom he felt wrote “the most stupendous literature that ever was written.” Gibran had told Juliet, “There was no Arabic that even touched the Arabic of Baha’u’llah.” 8
Of Abdu’l-Baha Himself, Kahlil wrote close friend Mary Haskell, “He is a very great man. He is complete. There are worlds in his soul. And oh what a remarkable face—what a beautiful face—so real and so sweet.”
Abdu’l-Baha said to Gibran, after seeing the portrait the poet made of Him: “Those who work with the Spirit work well. You have the power of Allah in you,’ and, quoting Mohammed, said: ‘Prophets and poets see with the light of God.’” 3
Juliet remembers, “[Kahlil] simply adored the Master. He was with Him whenever he could be. He would come over here to this house (48 West 10th) to see the Master. In Boston, he was often with the Master.” “He often talked of Him, most sympathetically and most lovingly.” “When he wrote The Son of Man he thought of Abdu’l-Baha all through. He said that he was going to write another book with Abdu’l-Baha as the center and all the contemporaries of Abdu’l-Baha speaking. He died before he wrote it. He told me definitely that The Son of Man was influenced by Abdu’l-Baha.” 9
Although there is not much information about what Abdu’l-Baha and Gibran talked about with each other, Juliet’s note that he spent as much time with Him as he could is supplemented with his status as the Master’s occasional, unofficial interpreter from Arabic to English. It seems that this young man enjoyed simply being in the Master’s company, observing His Being and learning from Him, as did countless others.
One anecdote of Gibran’s time with Abdu’l-Baha, conveyed through Juliet, gives us a glimpse into the intimacy of his time with the Master: “Two women came in [to the room when Gibran was with Him]. They were women of fashion, and they asked trifling questions. One of them wanted to know whether she was going to be married again. The Master was pacing the floor. Drawing in His breath, expelling it, His eyes turning from side to side. When they left, ‘Gilded dirt!’ He said.” 8
Since Kahlil was a young man in forbidden love with Mary Haskell, an intelligent and independent woman, the affirmation of the equal station of woman by Baha’u’llah—proclaimed in the United States by Abdu’l-Baha—must have been a tonic to the claustrophobic sexual mores of Victorian New England:
The world of humanity is possessed of two wings: the male and the female. So long as these two wings are not equivalent in strength, the bird will not fly. Until womankind reaches the same degree as man, until she enjoys the same arena of activity, extraordinary attainment for humanity will not be realized; humanity cannot wing its way to heights of real attainment.The Promulgation of Universal Peace, page 375
Gibran wryly visited this theme when he wrote Jesus, the Son of Man: “women are weak and empty-headed, and they follow the man who would comfort their unspent passion with soft and tender words” …and put these words in the “mouth” of “A Young Priest in Capernaum”. 10
Gibran once said, “Spare me the political events and power struggles, as the whole earth is my homeland and all men are my fellow countrymen,” 11 so one can only imagine how his peaceful heart was set afire, “enthralled and electrified” 3 by Baha’u’llah’s visionary, unifying message, brought by Abdu’l-Baha to the United States a century ago:
…all mankind are the servants of one God; God is the Father of all; there is not a single exception to that law. There are no people of Satan; all belong to the Merciful. There is no darkness; all is light. All are the servants of God, and man must love humanity from his heart. He must, verily, behold humanity as submerged in the divine mercy.“The Promulgation of Universal Peace”, page 266
In the end, Juliet remembers Kahlil’s last mention of Abdu’l-Baha, as told to Marzieh Gail:
“One night, years afterward, the Master’s motion picture was going to be shown at the Baha’i Center… He sat beside me on the front row and he saw the Master come to life again for him in that picture. And he began to sob. We had asked him to speak a few words that night. When the time came for him to speak, he controlled himself and jumped up on the platform and then …still weeping before us all he said: ‘I declare that Abdu’l-Baha is the Manifestation of God for this day!’ Of course he got it wrong—but… he was weeping and he didn’t say anything more. He got down and he sat beside me, and he kept on sobbing and sobbing and sobbing. Seeing the picture—it brought it all back. He took my two hands and said, ‘You have opened for me a door tonight.’ Then he fled the hall. I never heard anything about it again. He never referred to it again. The only thing was, he couldn’t accept an intermediary for himself. He wanted his direct contact [with the Divine].” 9
Footnotes & Citations
- Kahlil Gibran: Man and Poetby Suheil Bushrui and Joe Jenkins, Oxford: Oneworld, 1998, p.9
- Kahlil Gibran: Man and Poetby Suheil Bushrui and Joe Jenkins, Oxford: Oneworld, 1998, p.9
- Kahlil Gibran to Mary Elizabeth Haskell, April 29, 1909, Chapel Hill papers, found in Bushrui and Jenkins, Kahlil Gibran: Man and Poet
- Young, “This Man from Lebanon: A Study of Kahlil Gibran”, 1945, page 102
- Kahlil Gibran: Man and Poet by Suheil Bushrui and Joe Jenkins, Oxford: Oneworld, 1998, p.9
- Gibran, Jesus, the Son of Man, 2008, Oxford: One World, page 51.
- Najjar, “Kahlil Gibran, a biography”, Saqi, 2008, p.110
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