Portrait of Abdu’l-Baha in Paris, France, October 1911. Photo courtesy of the Baha'i International Community.
Ever since I was little I have been interested in historical clothes and I have often wondered what Abdu’l-Baha looked like. What did He wear? And how were His clothes and His physical appearance a manifestation of qualities such as cleanliness, purity, grace and a deep abiding love for everyone?
In this article, I’ve gathered a small collection of historical accounts on the beauty of Abdu’l-Baha and stories that describe what He looked like. I am so grateful for these historical recollections, even though they only offer us a glimpse of Him.
The first story relates to cleanliness and it’s found in Vignettes from the Life of Abdu’l-Baha:
The Master considered cleanliness of vital importance. He was indeed ‘the essence of cleanliness’ even as Baha’u’llah had taught His followers. Florence Khanum bore witness to this, for she found Him ‘dazzlingly, spotlessly shining, from snowy turban-cloth, to white, snowy hair falling upon his shoulders, to white snowy beard and long snowy garment. Although it was high noon, in summer His attire was crisp and fresh-looking, as though He had not been visiting the sick, and in prison, and toiling for mankind since early morning. Often a deliciously fresh rose was tucked in His belt.’
Muhammad-i-Zarandi, surnamed Nabil-i-Azam. Photo from The Dawn-Breakers.
Nabil-i-Azam was a poet, his eloquence a “gift like a crystal stream,” his native genius “pure inspiration.” This is how Abdu’l-Baha described the famous chronicler of Baha’i history, renowned for his narrative of the early days of the Baha’i Faith, The Dawn-Breakers.
But what do we know about the life of this “man of mettle…on fire with passionate love,” counted by Shoghi Effendi as one of the 19 Apostles of Baha’u’llah?
Nabil was born Muhammad-i-Zarandi on July 29, 1831. As a boy, he learned the Qur’an and would travel more than 400 miles with his father from Zarand to the holy city of Qom, to listen to religious discourses. Working as a shepherd, the young Nabil tended his flock, praying and chanting the holy verses. At night, he would lie on the ground, contemplating the heavens. His was truly a poetic soul. Continue reading
Thornton Chase (22 February 1847 – 30 September 1912). Photo courtesy of the US Baha'i Archives.
A strong-willed leader and organizer, and a seeker forever pursuing the mysteries of divine love; an insurance salesman and an artist of page and stage who composed poetry and prose, sang and acted; a man who wrestled with a wariness of women and a unifier of contending personalities: this was Thornton Chase. The man we know as the first U.S. Baha’i was fraught with apparent contradictions, the contradictions of a spiritual being striving to operate in this material realm. Of course, it was only through his struggles that Chase could earn from Abdu’l-Baha the title of “Thabit” (in Persian, “Sabet,” and in English, “the steadfast”). And God did not stint when it came to testing Chase, starting in his infancy and continuing for six decades until his death. Continue reading
Ethel Rosenberg (August 6, 1858 - November 17, 1930). Photo courtesy of the Baha'i International Community.
Almost 100 years ago, on the night of Friday 2 December 1921, an English woman boarded a train in Port Said, Egypt, to make the 200-mile journey along the Mediterranean coast to Haifa. As Ethel Jenner Rosenberg settled into her first class carriage, she hoped perhaps to sleep a little before an eagerly anticipated reunion that was ahead of her— a reunion with Abdu’l-Baha.
She had last seen the Master some nine years previously in London. There, as a result of His presence, thousands of people had been touched by the light of the Baha’i teachings. It was a far cry from those early days when she and Mrs. Thornburgh-Cropper had been the only two women in England to have embraced the Cause of Baha’u’llah. In the intervening years of the Great War, Ethel had struggled on heroically. As bombs rained down upon London, she strove to share her deep knowledge of the new Revelation with a handful of souls who longed to set their sights on the coming of a universal peace. Although Abdu’l-Baha’s life had been threatened by Ottoman forces, and her own fragile health almost prevented her from carrying on, she had maintained her profound spiritual connection with the Master. Now the prospect of attaining His incomparable presence was but one night’s train journey away. Continue reading
Nora Crossley (1893-1977). Photo courtesy of George Ronald.
As a young girl, Nora was admired for her beautiful hair. It was a rich auburn color and so long that it almost reached as far as the hem of her dress. Every night and every morning, Nora’s mother would brush it for an hour until it shone like gold. Artists travelled from across the North of England to paint Nora’s portrait. Into adulthood, she considered her hair her only redeeming feature.
Nora Crossley was born in Old Trafford, Manchester in 1893 into a wealthy family. But her childhood was not a happy one and her adulthood was equally severely difficult. After the First World War, she married her penniless childhood sweetheart against her separated parents’ wishes. War had irrevocably changed her husband. He was later diagnosed as schizophrenic, but at that point his erratic behaviour was beyond any explanation. He refused to return to work, preferring to play the organ and repair hymn books for the church, but never accepting any payment. So began more than 50 years of severe tests at home for Nora, who soon became a mother to two sons. Continue reading
Crossing Frontiers is a documentary on the life of Hand of the Cause of God Amatu’l-Baha Ruhiyyih Khanum, who was also the wife of Shoghi Effendi. The film explores the frontiers Ruhiyyih Khanum had crossed in her travels to over 185 countries, where she gave countless lectures, met many leading dignitaries, and was interviewed by the press throughout the world, continually promoting the essential teachings of the Baha’i Faith.
Produced by Badiyan Productions in 1997, Baha’i Blog was graciously given the rights to publish Crossing Frontiers on our YouTube channel, and this historical gem of a documentary offers rare footage and interviews with Hand of the Cause of God Amatu’l-Baha Ruhiyyih Khanum.
Badiyan Productions are also known for their wonderful The Hands of the Cause documentary series, and Fred Badiyan of Badiyan Productions also happens to be my great uncle. His life of dedicated service to the Baha’i Faith through the medium of film and media had a profound impact on me personally, and it has served as an inspiration and catalyst in my personal pursuit of using media to serve the Faith. I caught up with Fred Badiyan to find out more about this film, and here’s what he shared: Continue reading
Juliet Thompson & portrait of Mrs. Coolidge. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.
It is always a pleasure to show friends my favorite places when they visit New York City. I first came here when I was 17 years old and sometimes I feel like there is a memory on every street. The two places that I am most excited to show my out-of-town visitors are the Church of the Ascension where Abdu’l-Baha spoke days after His arrival in America and the other is the home of Juliet Thompson at 48 West 10th Street, near 5th Avenue. I believe that in the future these will be the must-visit spots for any visitor to New York City, far surpassing in popularity the Empire State building, Times Square, and other current tourist attractions.
Juliet Thompson was born in Washington DC, on September 23, 1873. She was of Irish descent. She was twelve years old when her father died and she was forced to work as a teenager in order to support the family. Early on, she showed talent for painting and was able to make money selling her pastel portraits. She studied at the Corcoran Art School in Washington DC. Continue reading
Marzieh Gail (1 April 1908 - 16 October 1993). Photo courtesy of the Baha'i International Community.
In this article I would like to pay tribute to one of the most distinguished authors of Baha’i literature, Marzieh Gail, by offering a brief biographical sketch of her life and by providing some excerpts of her writing.
My reason for paying tribute to her is that I believe she is an individual whose life and service illustrates two core principles of the Baha’i Faith; the equality of women and men, and the oneness of mankind. She embodied these principles through her outstanding services to Baha’i scholarship as a writer and translator at a time when women often found doors closed to them, and by her serving to humanity in both Western and Eastern communities.
Marzieh was born April 1st, 1908 and her parents, Ali Kuli Khan and Florence Breed, were the first Persian and American Baha’i couple. This cross-cultural family upbringing prepared her for a life of service to both the East and the West. She later recorded some of the details of her childhood and youth in a relatable and humorous tone in her biographical book about her father, Summon Up Remembrance. In addition to being raised by a Persian father and American mother Marzieh spent her childhood from the age of 10 travelling across Europe and the Middle East with her family, learning from tutors along the way. She also had a profound connection to the Baha’i Faith from her early years, meeting Abdu’l-Baha when she was a child and receiving a Tablet from Him, and later meeting Shoghi Effendi. Continue reading
Dizzy Gillespie (October 21, 1917 – January 6, 1993). Photo courtesy of Roland Godefroy, accessed from Wikimedia Commons.
From childhood, John Birks Gillespie—famously nicknamed “Dizzy” in his teens—stood out: in his school, in his family, among his musical colleagues. According to Mrs. Wilson, his third-grade teacher, she would say to him, “John, do you have your lessons?” He would reply, “‘Yeah, I got it, I got it, Mrs. Wilson, I got it.’ And when the time for recitations came, he would know it. How? I don’t know, because he wouldn’t study.” Continue reading
Knight of Baha'u'llah Elsie Austin (May 10, 1908– Oct 26, 2004). Photo courtesy of the Baha'i International Community
Elsie Austin’s passion for racial equality was in her DNA. Her parents taught at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, an African American educational establishment headed by Booker T. Washington. Even as a girl, Elsie was outspoken, incensed that a textbook failed to recognise any black people for their contribution to history.
“I was taught…that Africans worked iron before Europeans knew anything about it,” she announced to her class. “I was taught that they knew how to cast bronze in making statues and that they worked in gold and ivory so beautifully that the European nations came to their shores to buy their carvings and statues.” While her protest was met with barely suppressed snickering, Elsie was undeterred. “If there had been no protest,” she later said, “what ingrained prejudice and hostility would have been implanted in the minds of those children, and what humiliation and degradation would have been stamped upon us.”
Similarly, when she and seven other African American women students were admitted to the University of Cincinnati, they were warned to be inconspicuous and have low expectations. “That speech traumatized us,” Elsie remembered. The eight resolved to prove their worth, and by the end of the year each took home an honor.
Elsie was angry about prejudice—often justified by religion—towards race. She told her father she was not able to “believe anymore in these religions that are all separate, all fighting with each other, all enforcing prejudice against some group, and yet they say God is the father of all mankind.” George Austin knew something of the Bahaʼis, thought they had interesting views, and encouraged her to investigate this new Faith. Guided by Louis G. Gregory and Dorothy Baker, Elsie joined the Baha’i community in 1934. Continue reading