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Abdu'l-Bahá: The Centre of the Covenant of Bahá'u'lláh, by H.M. Balyuzi:
Review

by L. P. Elwell-Sutton

published in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society
1973
'Abdu'l-Bahá: The Centre of the Covenant of Bahá'u'lláh
Author: H. M. Balyuzi
Publisher: London, George Ronald, 1971
pp. xii, 560, 14 pl. £1.75.
Review by: L.P. Elwell-Sutton


[page 166]

    H. M. Balyuzi's book is the second of a trilogy that began with his study of Baha'ullah (published in 1963) and is to be completed with a biography of Sayyid Muhammad 'Ali the Bab. Thus the three great figures of Bahá'ísm are being treated in detail for the first time since E. G. Browne laid down his pen. Indeed, Browne had little to say about Baha'ullah and 'Abdu'l-Bahá, and in the view of orthodox Bahá'ís (as expressed by Mr. Balyuzi in an earlier work) [footnote 1: Edward Granville Browne and the Bahá'í faith, London, 1970.] was misled by dissident elements in the community, notably the followers of Mirza Yahya Subh-i Azal.


[page 167]

    As the man whose leadership of the Bahá'í community saw the spread of Bahá'ísm throughout the world, 'Abdu'l-Bahá is held in as much reverence as his two predecessors. But the biographer has the further advantage that there were many more chroniclers and witnesses available to record the details of his life. This comes out very clearly in Mr. Balyuzi's work, which - for all the charm and fluency that the author brings to it - is essentially a compilation of material, press reports, personal memoirs, speeches, and so on, from a wide range of sources, most of them already published in one place or another, and here usefully brought together for the first time.

    This method of composition is reflected in the shape of the book, almost half of which is devoted to 'Abdu'l-Bahá's two-year tour of Europe and America from August, 1911, to June, 1913. While obviously from the point of view of world Bahá'ísm this journey was of immense consequence, consolidating as it did the establishment of the faith in the West and especially in the United States, the reader may feel that there are rather too many names (and even addresses) dropped, rather too many visits recorded to the houses of private individuals whose identity and significance is not made clear. In a work of over 500 pages some of this detail would hardly be missed, except by the relatives and friends of the persons concerned. Indeed, this is not the only point at which the book takes on the air of a "house" publication written more for the faithful than for the outside world. The reverent attitude to the subject of the biography is understandable, but the as yet unconverted reader may feel that he is being asked to take too much on trust. True, there are generous quotations from 'Abdu'l-Bahá's speeches and letters, especially those belonging to the American tour; but sometimes these stop short just when they are getting interesting, to leave one with a surely false impression of empty platitude and generalization. For instance, on p. 257 and again on p. 264 we hear of a "scheme for dealing with the superfluous wealth of a nation", but we never learn what it was.

    It may be this kind of omission that gives the feeling that, while there is nothing in 'Abdu'l-Bahá's teaching that any reasonable person of good will could object to, there is equally nothing to get your teeth into - or to get its teeth into you. "The peace of the world must be brought about by international agreement. All nations must agree to disarm simultaneously" (p. 258). How may international conferences have foundered on that shoal! "This is the prime duty of the proprietors of newspapers, to obliterate misunderstandings betwixt religions and races and nativities, and promote the oneness of mankind" (p. 273). Quite so.

    The rather fulsome tone of the references to 'Abdu'l-Bahá and his supporters is counterbalanced by the severity of the terms used to describe their enemies, particularly Baha'ullah's half-brother Mirza Yahya, and 'Abdu'l-Bahá's half-brother Mirza Muhammad 'Ali. Without necessarily questioning the role played by these two, the non-Bahá'í reader may wish for rather more substantial evidence than "astounding perfidy", "odious deeds", "dire mischief". Mr. Balyuzi, however, regards these charges as so self-evidently true that he does not even think it necessary to refute the countercharges, quoted very fully and honestly, made by them against 'Abdu'l-Bahá himself.

    There are some minor faults. Mr. Balyuzi retains the idiosyncrasies of transliteration that have marked his earlier books. In particular, his consistent use of -i- for the Persian sound more nearly rendered by -e- is singularly inappropriate when it stands for the Arabic -a- in such words as siyyid, dawlih, suriy-i- ghusn, and is scarcely warranted by the Persian pronunciation, let alone for purely Arabic words and names, like Ramlih for the Egyptian city of Ramla. For the most part (but not always) he quite properly retains the original spelling in quotations, but it seems unnecessarily pedantic to gloss such forms as "Koran" (Qur'an) and "sheiks" (Shaykhs). While his footnotes and references are very full and thorough, there are occasional lapses; for instance, it is not enough on p. 419 to say that "Kayl was a measure for grain" (obvious from the context) without adding its modern equivalent (36 litres). One would also have been glad of a glossary of Bahá'í titles and technical terms, giving both Persian and English forms.

    The fact remains that, in spite of a few surface faults, Mr. Balyuzi's book provides an admirable and readable account of a major religious figure of our times, virtually ignored outside the body of his adherents, but obviously able to inspire fanatical devotion in those who met him. One does not need to be a Bahá'í to recognize the importance and value of his teaching, and to feel surprise that no orientalist after Browne should have devoted serious attention to this new faith from the East. As a Persian with a scholarly knowledge of his native culture, as a Bahá'í of long standing and high rank, and as a man of affairs with extensive experience and


[page 168]

understanding of the West (as well as an excellent command of English), Mr. Balyuzi is just the man to take on the task.

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