“What I Saw of Abdu’l-Baha”: Vignettes by Laura Barney

‘Abdu’l-Bahá standing on the balcony of the house of Abbas Gholi, c. 1920
Abdu’l-Baha stands on a balcony. (Image source)

May 16, 1909, New York City: a group has gathered to hear Laura Clifford Barney speak. Her name is familiar to the audience from Some Answered Questions, which was published last year. This book brought Abdu’l-Baha’s commentary on subjects ranging from the New Testament to criminal justice to the newborn Baha’i community in the United States.

Barney, the book’s compiler and translator, has spent most of the past decade far from this, her homeland, living in Paris and Akka. She lived for months at a time in Abdu’l-Baha’s household—a “village” bustling with Baha’is of all ages, as she fondly recalls—from 1904 to 1906, when she compiled Some Answered Questions. During these Akka sojourns, she had many opportunities to interact with and observe Abdu’l-Baha.

“It is not what I think [that] is of much importance but what I saw…of the characteristics and habits of Abdu’l-Baha,” she tells her New York audience. One attendee has a pen poised above a stack of lined paper, ready to transcribe Barney’s words. Thanks to this unnamed scribe, we have a record of Barney’s comments that day. For this post, passages have been arranged by topic: first, anecdotes of Abdu’l-Baha; second, reminiscences of life in His household; and third, reflections on His attributes and guidance. These excerpts have been lightly edited for readability. 


The Solomon of Akka

As to Abdu’l-Baha Himself, it is very difficult to describe Him owing to His diversity—so many aspects. Perhaps I had better give you the view as to how outsiders look upon and think of Him.

All around the surrounding country of Akka He is known as Abbas Effendi. They look upon Him as a very wise man, likening Him to Solomon. They come to Him for advice and many difficult questions are put before Him for solution. They all trust Him, and even though He is a prisoner, the Governor himself has come to Him for comfort and consultation. He is felt to be a wise and remarkable saint. He is extraordinary in His dealings with the poor, being their best friend.

A Prisoner’s Outing

The Governor one day asked Him to go on an outing. He complied with this wish, but all during the outing, He was calm and meditative. Finally He spoke and said, “This outward prison is of no importance. It is the prison of self from which we must be free.” The prisoner in this case was more powerful than the Governor, as the Governor had really to request the Prisoner to go out of the prison.

A Troubled Governor

Once a governor was there who insisted on being bribed to permit the Master’s friends to visit Him. Yet the Master refused to pay these bribes. He never bribed any one. Shortly after, this governor was sent away and became disgraced and in trouble. Then did the Master—when all other men had left the governor to [fend] for himself—send the exact sum of money to him.

Abdu’l-Baha’s Belongings

A large basket of fruit being sent to Him passed through the Custom House and came to the household half empty. He questioned, “How comes this?” The reply was that the officers helped themselves freely in the Custom House. He frowned for a moment, then His face lit up with a smile, and He said, “Did they do this secretly? Then they should be punished, yet did they do it openly. Bravo, for those things that belong to Abdu’l-Baha belong to all men.”

Compassion for the Sorrowful

I remember one day He came in for lunch, looking weary and grieved. After a few moments, we asked, had anything happened? Could we send a message to any one?

Then He related a heartbreaking experience which he had gone through that day. How He had been passing the barracks where they were enlisting soldiers. How a father and mother were bitterly weeping over the enlistment by the government of their only son. They had no other consolation but the love of God…

Abdu’l-Baha realizes the difficult position people pass through. He has a heart filled with love for humanity and realizes the necessity of peace in the hearts of the people.


Welcoming Pilgrims

When a pilgrim goes to Akka, Abdu’l-Baha knows his true condition, but He does not judge by the outward expression but judges by their inward self. He seems to know intimately the action of their secret minds.

One of the questions is after personal welfare: “Are you happy and have you rested?” He has this kindly greeting for everyone.

Exemplar for the Baha’i World

Akka is the center of the world. It is the place of meeting for all pilgrims. Many of my dearest friends are pilgrims. Many of my dearest friends are people I have met there, Muhammadans, Jews, Zoroastrians, etc. Not only there do we feel that bond of unity. It is everywhere we meet the Baha’is. They are all connected with one another and like one great happy family.

This bond of sympathy creates beautiful actions and it is really wonderful what we can accomplish in this world.

Abdu’l-Baha is wonderful in His example. He displays two principles which are very powerful. They are toleration and vigilance… We must be tolerant to all mankind and vigilant not to harm.


Love for Humanity

His life of activity is remarkable. There is never any great haste. Everything seems to be well balanced. His idea is that anything begun should be finished with the same pains as when the undertaking was started.

His interest in all of us is one of wonderful insight. He seems to focus all that is in us so that we are a mirror to Him.

It is almost a miracle how He reads and understands all letters written to Him and how He answers all according to their needs. Everyone is carefully considered and yet everyone receives that which they long for.

What pains in detail He takes for those that love and come to Him. It is the principle that Baha’u’llah taught, the force of love. … It depends on us to love Him. When He spreads the love of God, it falls upon this universe, and everything takes that love differently. It all depends how we accept that love.

Reliance on God

As the Centre of the Covenant, His station is humility. He would be a brilliant being in any walk of life and would have made a success in any material undertaking because He depends wholly upon that force which is of God.

Imagine a pool of water: not connecting with any other water, it soon becomes stagnant, but when connected with the ocean itself, it remains always pure. So it is with us. We must be connected with God and always fill that Connection, and then we will always be attuned with the infinite.

Patient Guidance

Abdu’l-Baha is sensitive and poetical in the midst of all this activity. When He is about to answer a question He is calm and meditative, and seems to be looking out on nature. He seems to forget your presence, and by and by when He answers, all that which seemed difficult for you to comprehend becomes easy to understand. All mysteries are imparted unto you.

Vision for America

Abdu’l-Baha says of the various groups and masses in America that their true state of understanding the real brotherhood of man will be accomplished through our efforts, as we continually grow in the love of Baha’u’llah. Then we will be able to reach these great masses, and will altogether through His love and thoughts of Him grow and grow until love becomes universal.

The transcript of this talk is held in the US National Baha’i Archives. You can learn more about Laura Barney’s writings from my article in the Journal of Baha’i Studies (which you can access here).

This article was originally published on Baha’i Blog.