Remembering 'Abdu'l-Baha's Call for Unity, a Century after World War I
Today, Bahá’ís commemorate the Day of the Covenant, a day dedicated to the remembrance of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s unique station in Bahá’í history. A century after the end of World War I—the bloodiest conflict humanity had ever known until then—today’s remembrance also harks back to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s urgent efforts to promote peace in the years preceding the war, His critical actions to ease suffering during the crisis, and the relevance of His call for peace today.
During His tour of Europe and North America from 1911 to 1913, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá often described Europe as on the brink of war. “The time is two years hence, when only a spark will set aflame the whole of Europe,” He said in an October 1912 talk. “By 1917 kingdoms will fall and cataclysms will rock the earth.”
Newspaper reports of His talks highlighted His warnings to humanity of an impending war and the urgent need to unify:
In July 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and the Great War began.
Noting the significance that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá gave to the issue of peace, Century of Light, a publication commissioned in 2001 by the Universal House of Justice, states: “From the beginning, ‘Abdu’l Bahá took keen interest in efforts to bring into existence a new international order. It is significant, for example, that His early public references in North America to the purpose of His visit there placed particular emphasis on the invitation of the organizing committee of the Lake Mohonk Peace Conference for Him to address this international gathering…. Beyond this, the list of influential persons with whom the Master spent patient hours in both North America and Europe—particularly individuals struggling to promote the goal of world peace and humanitarianism—reflects His awareness of the responsibility the Cause has to humanity at large.”
Having raised the warning and urged the world to work for peace, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá returned on 5 December 1913 to Haifa, then part of the Ottoman Empire. Aware of the coming war, He took steps to protect the Bahá’í community under His stewardship and to avert a famine in the region. One of His first decisions upon returning to the Holy Land was to send home all the Bahá’ís who were visiting from abroad.
Less than a year later, war broke out in Europe. As the Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary, the Allied Powers—including France, Britain, and eventually the United States—formed a strict blockade around Haifa. Communication and travel in and out of the area were almost impossible. Haifa and Akka were swept into the hysteria of war.
To protect the resident Bahá’ís of Haifa and Akka from danger, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá decided to move them to a nearby Druze village called Abu-Sinan, while He remained in Akka with only one other Bahá’í. However, bombardment by the Allied forces necessitated that He eventually join the other Bahá’ís in the village; at one point, a shell landed, but did not explode, in the Ridvan Garden near Akka. ‘Abdu’l Baha had the Bahá’ís in Abu-Sinan establish a dispensary and a small school for the area’s children.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá also intensified efforts to protect the surrounding populations. He directed Bahá’í farmers in the Jordan River Valley to increase their harvest yields and store extra grain in anticipation of a future shortage. After the war broke out and food supplies became scarce, He ensured that wheat would be distributed throughout the region. In July 1917, for example, He visited one farm in Adasiyyih, in present-day Jordan, for 15 days during the wheat and barley harvest. He had the surplus carried by camel to the famine-stricken Akka-Haifa area.
Throughout His ministry as the head of the Bahá’í Faith, from Bahá’u’lláh’s ascension in 1892 to His own passing in 1921, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was in constant correspondence with Bahá’ís around the world. But during the war, His contacts with those outside the Holy Land were severely restricted.
Still, during this time, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá took on two of His well-known works: Memorials of the Faithful and Tablets of the Divine Plan. The first was the publication of a series of talks He delivered during the war, eulogizing 79 heroic Bahá’ís. The latter was a series of letters, written in 1916 and 1917, that laid the foundation for the global spread of the Bahá’í Faith.
Eventually, during the war, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá resumed weekly gatherings in His home, warmly greeting visitors and meeting with people from all segments of society, including Ottoman, British, German, and other military and government figures.
“Agony filled His soul at the spectacle of human slaughter precipitated through humanity’s failure to respond to the summons He had issued, or to heed the warnings He had given,” Shoghi Effendi later wrote about ‘Abdu’l-Bahá during this time in God Passes By.
Following Haifa’s liberation on 23 September 1918, the city was in a frenzy. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá maintained an atmosphere of calm and dignity as He received a continual flow of visitors including generals, officials, soldiers, and civilians.
News of His safety gave relief to Bahá’ís around the world. With the end of the war, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá would soon meet many more Bahá’ís and other visitors from abroad as the doors to that sacred land were open again.
While Europe was jubilant with the end of the Great War and a world-embracing institution was taking form in the League of Nations, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote in January 1920:
“The ills from which the world now suffers will multiply; the gloom which envelops it will deepen. The Balkans will remain discontented. Its restlessness will increase. The vanquished Powers will continue to agitate. They will resort to every measure that may rekindle the flame of war.”
Conscious of the threat of yet another war, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá showed great interest in movements working for peace. In 1919, for example, He corresponded with the Central Organization for a Durable Peace at The Hague, which had written to Him three years earlier. In a message, referred to as the Tablet to The Hague, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, while praising the organization, was also candid in stating that peace would require a profound transformation in human consciousness and a commitment to the spiritual truths enunciated by Bahá’u’lláh.
“At present Universal Peace is a matter of great importance, but unity of conscience is essential, so that the foundation of this matter may become secure, its establishment firm and its edifice strong,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote in that letter. “Today nothing but the power of the Word of God which encompasses the realities of things can bring the thoughts, the minds, the hearts and the spirits under the shade of one Tree.”
In His will, Bahá’u’lláh appointed His oldest son, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, as the authorized interpreter of His teachings and head of the Bahá’í Faith. Upholding unity as the fundamental principle of His teachings, Bahá’u’lláh established a Covenant through which His religion would not split into sects after His passing. Thus, Bahá’u’lláh instructed His followers to turn to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá not only as the authorized interpreter of the Bahá’í writings but also as the perfect exemplar of the Faith’s spirit and teachings.
An article from the Buffalo Courier on 11 September 1912 reports on ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s talk the previous night, in which He predicted the coming war. “The continent of Europe is one vast arsenal, which only requires one spark at its foundations and the whole of Europe will become a wasted wilderness,” the newspaper quotes ‘Abdu’l-Baha as saying.
The 31 August 1912 issue of The Montreal Daily Star includes a prominent article about ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s talk the night before. “Apparently the era of universal peace would not be ushered in before a war of colossal proportions had been fought. Such a war would be the most appalling in the world’s history. Europe to-day was heading straight for this,” the newspaper quoted ‘Abdu’l-Baha as saying.