Thursday, July 4, 2019

A True Teacher

"Among the greatest of all services that can possibly be rendered by man to Almighty God is the education and training of children...", writes 'Abdu'l-Baha. "It is, however, very difficult to undertake this service, even harder to succeed in it."

What, I have often wondered, makes a good teacher? And why is it so difficult? I have taught children's classes and have experienced many ups and downs, joys and heartaches. It has been the most rewarding of all things, and at times the most painful of all things.

And you know what, dear Reader? I wouldn't miss it for anything. The greater the pain, they say, the greater the joy. The joy of teaching children is one of the greatest joys imaginable.

So what is it that I have learned?

Well, let me give you a story by way of example.

There was once a teacher by the name of Shaykh Abid. He was a gentle soul, learned and wise.

One day, a man enrolled his 6-year old nephew in Shaykh Abid's school. During one of the lessons, the students were asked to recite the opening words of the Qur'an. Now, you have to understand, this is not just some simple lesson like reading a few words off the page. These children spoke Persian, and the Qur'an is written in Arabic. While they could sound out the words, they probably had little or no idea what they meant. But like good Muslim children, they were expected to merely recite the sounds of the words.

This child, this 6-year old child, said that he would not recite them unless he was told what they meant.

Shaykh Abid, for some reason, pretended that he didn't know. It's possible that he was just tired and didn't want to explain, or perhaps he wanted to set an example for the children. He told the young boy that he himself didn't know what they meant, and so he may have been demonstrating that it was ok to recite them even if you didn't know their meaning.

Either way, whatever the reason, something special happened that day.

The young child said to his teacher, "I know what these words signify, by your leave, I will explain them." And so he did.

Shaykh Abid later recalled the incident, saying, "He spoke with such knowledge and fluency that I was struck with amazement. He expounded the meaning of ` Allah,' of ` Rahman,' and ` Rahim,' in terms such as I had neither read nor heard. The sweetness of His utterance still lingers in my memory."

This young child, as you probably know, was the Bab.

So what, you may wonder, is the lesson here for us today?

To me, it is a beautiful story showing us the wondrous gifts we open ourselves up to when we show humility as a teacher.

It would have been so easy for Shaykh Abid to recite the words in Arabic, and then add, "And they mean 'In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate'." So easy. So quick.

But he didn't.

When he declined telling the students what these words meant, for whatever reason, he opened the door for this student to do so. He could have told this student to be quiet and sit down, but he didn't. Like a good teacher, he encouraged this young Man. "Ok," I can hear him say, "let's hear what you think they mean."

By allowing the Bab to speak, even though He was only 6 years old, he demonstrated a humility that is worthy of any good teacher.

In return, he was given a priceless gift.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The Journey of Prayers

The desert was, no doubt, hot and dry. And yet, it had to be crossed.

The Bab was on His way to Mecca with His beloved disciple, Quddus, and His servant, Mubarak. They were going to fulfill all the rites of Pilgrimage.

As with any journey across the desert at that time, they would start early in the morning, before the sun was even up, and then rest during the pounding heat of the day. Of course, throughout the day, they would also say their prayers, for the Bab truly understood the importance of prayer.

It was during this journey that the Bab revealed many beautiful prayers and writings, almost all of them transcribed by Quddus. Many of these were stored in a saddlebag that was likely carried at the side of the camel that He rode.

But one morning, as they were all saying their prayers, a man crept up quietly upon them and ran off with the saddlebag that had been left there.

Mubarak started to run after him, but the Bab quietly waved him back without interrupting His prayers.

Later, after the prayers had been said, the Bab told him that this was a great bounty, for this man would carry His writings deep into the desert, to places and people that would never receive them otherwise. "Grieve not, therefore, at his action," He said, "for this was decreed by God, the Ordainer, the Almighty."

There are many times in our life when things happen that we initially think are a catastrophe. It is as Baha'u'llah says, "Sorrow not if, in these days and on this earthly plane, things contrary to your wishes have been ordained and manifested by God". Or like the story in the Valley of Knowledge, where the lover is chased by the night watchmen and only in the end, when he is united with his lover, praises them.

There are so many times when we can lament what occurs to us, but in retrospect see the great bounties that accrued because of those tests and trials.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

A White Bird

'Abdu'l-Karim was a very interesting person.

He lived in Persia in the middle of the 19th century, and was passionate about his study of religion. He knew that if he wanted to know more about God and His Messengers, he would need to study for years and years. And so he did.

At this point I could talk about the great teachers he studied under, or the places he traveled in his search for more knowledge, but really, I can't. He didn't. Well, he did, but not quite as we would imagine.

He read a lot, and talked with many people about his passion, usually late into the night, but he only studied formally for a couple of years.

At the end of those few years, his teachers proclaimed him a mujtahid, a teacher of the Qur'an. As you can imagine, this was very sudden, for it normally took a lot longer than that to receive such an acclamation.

His family was thrilled, and wanted to celebrate this great achievement, but he asked them to wait, for he did not feel ready. He knew the wisdom that the mujtahids were expected to have, and he did not feel worthy. He knew that they were to have great insights into the wonders of the Book of God, and he did not feel that he had anything like that. He knew, deep in his heart, that he was not yet ready to receive such a title.

And so he did what he knew anyone should do when facing such questions like that in their heart: he prayed. He prayed for many hours, long into the night, and during that time he was given a vision. He saw a great man speaking to a large throng of people, giving them all wise counsel. When he turned to this man and began to walk towards him, he awoke.

Upon enquiry the next day, he learned that the man in his vision was Siyyid Kazim, in Karbila.

From there, as you can guess, he sought him out and became one of Siyyid Kazim's students. He studied with him in Karbila for some time, learned of the imminent appearance of the Promised One, and then returned to his home in Persia.

It was during this time, while he was back home, praying every night for guidance, that he received a second vision.

He saw a bird, pure as the snow, flying above his head. This bird landed on a tree near him and, in a beautiful, gentle voice, asked, "Are you seeking the Manifestation, O 'Abdu'l-Karim? Lo, the year sixty."

This vision thrilled him, and filled him with great joy, for the year sixty was only a few years away.

Over the following months, this vision continually filled his mind, and thrilled his heart.

Finally, a few years later, in the year 1260, he heard of the message of the Bab and hastened to Shiraz to meet Him. When the Bab saw him, He said, "Are you seeking the Manifestation, O 'Abdu'l-Karim?" And the voice, just in case there was any doubt, was that same sweet voice of the bird.

* * * * *

I love this story, not only for its simple fulfillment of promise, but for the humility of its main character.

'Abdu'l-Karim was, by any reckoning, a prodigy. He could easily have been full of himself, haughty with his own learning, proud of his accomplishments. He would, no doubt, have gathered a large following for himself, and become quite famous in his time.

But he was too honest for that.

He knew that he had not yet risen to his own standard of worth. He was aware of how little he knew, in comparison to what he felt he should know. He knew that the praise of his contemporaries was worth nothing if he did not feel worthy of that praise. More importantly, he knew that this praise should never sway his own opinion of himself.

This is such an important lesson for all of us.

When we are told to "know thyself", it is a very important statement to follow. We not only need to know ourselves, but we need to be honest with that knowledge, too. 'Abdu'l-Karim knew of his passion for religion, but was aware enough to know that he had not yet fulfilled his own personal expectations.

As we embark on our own quest for truth, there are those around us who may praise us for our wisdom or understanding, but only we will know how far we actually have to go.

And if we follow 'Abdu'l-Karim's example, and not allow the opinion of others to sway us, we may, just like him, discover treasures far greater than we ever imagined.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

The War

Yesterday afternoon, while selling my work at a festival, an old friend came into my booth. I hadn't seen her in quite a few months. After a brief conversation about what she's been doing, and where she's moving, she asked me about my writing. Naturally, I told her about my latest project with this blog, showing the relevance of the stories about the early Babis, and began to tell her a little bit about Zaynab.

I could see that my friend had never heard of her, and so I began to tell the story, in brief.

I told her about the attacks on the Babis in Zanjan, and how they retreated to a fort in the middle of the city when they began getting persecuted. As you can imagine, being at a show, selling my wares, I didn't share too many details, but gave just the barest outline.

I told her about the military surrounding them, and how they were overwhelmed by something like 10 to 1 odds. They had swords, while the military had muskets and cannon. Naturally, all seemed hopeless. But as the army attacked, the valiant defenders would rush forth and repulse the attack. Time and again they drove the ruthless army back. And Zaynab, a young woman, wanted to lend her share of assistance.

This maiden cut off her long locks and disguised herself as a man. She picked up a sword and rushed to help defend the fort. Hurling herself at her enemies, shouting out the cry "Ya Sahibu'z-Zaman!", "O Thou Lord of the age", she fought with such valiant bravery that all were amazed.

Hujjat, the leader of this band, recognized her and called her to him to talk. This was when he recognized the Hand of God at play. And so he allowed her to continue to fight, encouraging her for over five months to help out the sore-tried defenders. He never assigned her to a particular post, but encouraged her to fight wherever she was needed. And so history finds her always in the thick of it, at the forefront of the turmoil that raged around her.

At this point, my friend's friend joined her and heard the end of this story, and I could see that her interest wasn't quite as strong. And so I said that I bet they wondered why this story might be relevant today.

Simple, really.

Women, and women in particular, are in a state of war. Amidst the old and decaying structures of our society, a new community of forward thinking individuals are coming together. They are the ones that recognize the importance of human rights, of women's rights, and they are building a new and better society for themselves. And now the attacks are coming.

All over the world these rights, which have been so hard won, are coming under assault.

And this is not just a metaphor. It really is a war. People are suffering. Many are being arrested. And even more are dying.

In recent days, down in the US, we have seen laws being passed that make women's rights a criminal activity. If a woman has an abortion, they say, they will be convicted of a felony. If someone helps them get that abortion, by either driving them or supporting them in any way, they, too, will be tried for a felony.

And you know what? A convicted felon is denied the right to vote.

This is not about the rights of the fetus. It is about denying women the right to have a safe place in their society. It is about stripping anyone who is forward thinking, and concerned about the rights of the human being, of their right to vote. You can easily see where this will lead, if it goes through, over the next few voting cycles.

This, by the way, is but a single example of the recent attacks on human rights, and especially women's rights, around the globe. It is not confined to a handful of States south of the border. It is a global resurgence of the forces of evil that are striving to maintain the old order of dominance.

And at that point, it seemed as if my friends were stunned.

Now is the time, I told them, that we all must arise and defend those people in that fort, no matter where the attacks arise. For it is a concentrated attack, and those inside are vastly outnumbered.

People are suffering.

People are dying.

And it is, quite simply, a war.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

A Small Gathering

"Would you be able to come and talk at my devotional gathering for, say, ten minutes?"

The request was not all that unusual, but still took me by surprise. After all, I tend to think of devotional gatherings as being for, well, prayer, not talks. And this is not a devotional gathering that I tend to go to often, mostly due to the timing, as opposed to anything else.

But the timing was good, and I am not one to say 'no' to some form of service if I am able to do it. So last night found my wife and I at a dear friend's home saying prayers with nearly a dozen people. It was truly joyous.

Before we left home, I went upstairs and said some prayers, desperately beseeching God for guidance. You may recall that one of my favorite prayers, which I have memorized, is "Oh God, HELP!" Last night, as per normal, help was given.

On the way there, Marielle asked me if I was ready, and I said that of course I was. It didn't mean that I knew what I would say, but just that the homework was done. I did, however, ask her to make sure that I asked a question at the end.

So there we were, at our friend's home, with guests arriving. And when the appointed hour struck, as they say, we were all warmly welcomed. We began with some prayers, going around in a circle, each either reading a prayer or saying one from our heart, or passing in silence, as we preferred.

Then it came my turn.

I briefly mentioned how Dorothy Baker trained herself to be a public speaker, how this sort of thing does not come naturally. I mentioned George Townshend and how in a prayer he wrote, he talked of preparing himself for when God called upon him. And I mentioned how 'Abdu'l-Baha would look at His audience and see what they needed to hear.

I then talked a bit about prayer and reflection, looking at the attributes of God mentioned within the prayer to see what it was we needed to work on to find the answer to our prayer. It was fascinating watching as different people visibly reacted with interest to each part of this 6 minute talk.

And then someone read the Tablet of Ahmad for the Baha'is of Iran, and we were asked to get some food.

This was when I reminded them that I had a question I wanted to ask.

"Marielle and I like to be in the habit of regularly reflecting on our actions. So how was tonight? How did you feel? How can we improve what we have done?"

And from there followed an absolutely beautiful 20 minute discussion.

The friends, not all of whom were Baha'i, talked about how they really love being immersed in the prayers. This, they said, is what they desperately need. Some said that they really appreciated the comments on the application of the attributes of God, and that this changed how they heard the Tablet of Ahmad. One person commented how they had never noticed that this Tablet, which was a command to Ahmad to go teach the Faith, ended with mercy and compassion, two attributes we need to develop not only towards others, but towards ourselves, too.

This seemingly simple question, posed to help us all learn to reflect on a regular basis, not only revealed some beautiful insights about the importance of these gatherings, but also carried us into the social portion of this gathering, continuing to talk deeply about spiritual issues.

Dear Reader, this, to me, turned out to be the pivotal moment of the entire evening.

Before this, it was a beautiful time of sharing prayers with like-minded souls. But by asking the friends to reflect and share how they felt, it became a meeting of greater unity. It became a conscious-raising moment when we all saw the importance of coming together to do this again. It moved it, for me at least, from a one-time event to a hopefully regular part of my life.

When you come together, whether it is for prayer or a study circle, a fireside or a cup of coffee with a friend, I would encourage you to reflect on it at the end. How was it? Should we do it again? How can we make it better? Was there something you would like to see changed? Take a moment and check in with all present.

Reflection does not have to be something that we only do once every three months as part of our cluster community life. It can be a part of every activity. It doesn't have to be long, but when we include it, we can learn so much that we may otherwise miss.

And I, for one, am really looking forward to praying with these friends again.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Crossroads

September 1848.

Mulla Husayn has agreed to leave Mashhad to go on a pilgrimage to Karbila. He had been detained by the Prince in Mashhad, and it was clear that to remain would have caused untold hardships for the friends. And so, he decided to quit the city and carry on his teaching elsewhere.

Due to the reverence that the Shi'ite Muslims hold for Karbila, it was only natural that he offer to make this pilgrimage, which was another way of politely saying that he would leave the country. But this pilgrimage was not to be. Destiny had in mind another Karbila for him.

After leaving the Prince, Mulla Husayn returned to his friends and informed them of the courtesy the Prince had extended him, as well as his own decision to make his way to Karbila.

While he was making his preparations to leave, a messenger arrived from the Bab, bearing a message that was to change the course of Babi history. The Bab bestowed His own green turban, the sign of His lineage as a descendant of Muhammad, upon Mulla Husayn, and told him to raise the Black Standard and lend his assistance to His beloved Quddus. The implications and nuances of this message are numerous, and would require a far longer story than this to explain even a small portion of them.

Suffice to say, Mulla Husayn went on his way, with the Black Standard before him, calling those who believed in the new Day to join him.

Before he left, the Prince offered him a sum of money to help pay for his pilgrimage, but Mulla Husayn asked that this money instead be given to the poor.

The captain of the artillery, 'Abdu-l-'Ali Khan, himself a believer, also offered to give whatever was needed for the journey. Mulla Husayn only accepted a horse and a sword, both of which he would carry into history with him.

They left Mashhad, riding through numerous towns, slowly increasing their numbers into the hundreds.

As they arrived at the village of Chashmih-'Ali, they came to a crossroads, one way leading to the capitol, Tehran, the other to Mazandaran. "We stand at the parting of the ways," Mulla Husayn proclaimed, "we shall await God's decree as to which direction we should take."

While many historic events were taking place elsewhere in the country, Mulla Husayn was camped under the shade of a tree. They camped for a while, with a guard continually on watch, and then, on a fateful day, a great wind arose. It was September of 1848, and that mighty wind snapped off a large branch of the tree under which he was camped.

"The tree of the sovereignty of Muhammad Shah has," Mulla Husayn remarked, "by the Will of God, been uprooted and hurled to the ground."

Three days later a messenger arrived on his way to Mashhad and gave them the news that the Shah had died.

The next morning, Mulla Husayn and his companions started out for Mazandaran, and their own Karbila.

* * * * *

I have always loved this tiny little detail of Mulla Husayn's story.

Karbila, as you likely know, is where Imam Huasyn, that great hero of the Islamic world, was martyred. It is so important in their history that the name "Karbila" has become a metaphor for the place where one is led by God to achieve a great destiny.

Here, we see a great trait of Mulla Husayn's as he awaits his sign from God, a sign that would eventually lead him to the site of his own martyrdom, his own Karbila.

There are many times in life when we have a decision to make. Like Mulla Husayn and his companions, we come to a crossroads. We can turn left, or we can turn right. Turning back is not an option.

Perhaps we have a choice between two job offers. One is higher paying, with better benefits, in a field we are passionate about. Obviously, we would choose this one.

Other times, the choice is not so clear.

It is at such times that we should pray, turning our whole attention towards God, seeking His guidance. And when we pray, after we have supplicated His direction, we should be sure to open our eyes and look for that sign. Sometimes it is clear, other times not so.

Sometimes that sign will lead us to great suffering, but perhaps that is what is needed for us to learn what we need.

Just this morning I was talking with my wife, and she mentioned how it was only when she suffered in a particular situation that she learned the importance of service to others. She was stuck in an awkward situation, being trapped in an airport for a few days, unable to enter the country, and unable to get a flight out. She could have panicked. She could have been angry. She easily could have broken down and begged others to help her. Instead, she looked around to see who she could offer assistance to while she waited for her plane.

Now, we're not just talking a few hours here. She knew that the next plane out was a few days away, and she had no access to money. Eating was going to be an issue. Finding a place to sleep was going to be a trial. She had a lot to worry about.

But she turned her attention to her fellow travelers and sought ways to help them, while waiting for a sign showing her what to do about her own situation.

At one point, she saw an old woman who was uncomfortable, and offered her sleeping bag as a cushion for her feet. Over and over she found ways to help others. They, in their turn, were able to help her get food and beverages, until she received her sign and was able to return home.

Mulla Husayn's patience is a great example to us all. His awareness of stopping to wait for that sign is an object lesson for all of us. And his insight into recognizing that sign when it occurred is also a lesson for us.

As I sat down to write this morning at the computer, I still had no idea what to say. I said a prayer in my heart for guidance, and my eyes fell on the book "Mulla Husayn" by Mehrabkhani. And it was as I saw this book that I remembered this little detail of his journey. That, to me, was my sign of what to tell today.

Over and over throughout life, when we look for them, we will see small signs such as this, helping us on our way, guiding us through our journey of life, sometimes leading us through trials and tribulations, but always on to our own high destiny.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

From a Humble Student

I want to go back to the story of Mulla Husayn.

We all know him as the first Letter of the Living, the first of those stalwart souls who recognized the Bab before He had even announced His station. We all remember his heroic deeds in the tragic battle at the Shrine of Shaykh Tabarsi. And some of us even recall those powerful words, penned by Baha'u'llah Himself in the Kitab-i-Iqan, referring to this great soul: "But for him, God would not have been established upon the seat of His mercy, nor ascended the throne of eternal glory." I've written a few stories about him already, but I want to share one more thought.

You may recall that Mulla Husayn was not in Karbila when his master, Siyyid Kazim passed away. He was in Persia. He had been sent there by Siyyid Kazim to win over the support of some of the most formidable mujtahids of the day, in particular Siyyid Muhammad-Baqir of Isfahan. This was no minor task, for this Siyyid was very learned, and extremely well-respected. To even get an audience with him would be a difficult task. Another disciple of Siyyid Kazim had volunteered to try to perform this task, but Siyyid Kazim had warned him, "Beware of touching the lion's tail. Belittle not the delicacy and difficulty of such a mission." He then turned to Mulla Husayn and pronounced him equal to this task.

Although accounts differ, we know that he spent between two and four years in Persia at this time, both in Isfahan and Masshad at the behest of his teacher, and also in various other cities as needed. We know, for example, that he spent some time in Shiraz, but no information about that time has come to light.

When he was in Isfahan, he was able to catch the eminent Siyyid's attention one afternoon, and in a series of debates in which the Siyyid questioned him about the more difficult aspects of Siyyid Kazim's and Shaykh Ahmad's teachings, he was able to win his complete allegiance. Of this meeting, that great teacher said, "I, who fondly imagined myself capable of confounding and silencing Siyyid Kazim-i-Rashti, realized, when I first met and conversed with him who claims to be only his humble disciple, how grievously I had erred in my judgment." The written testimony of this famous scholar likely opened many other doors for the young Mulla Husayn, who was only in his mid-twenties at the time.

So let's recap.

Mulla Husayn is in his mid-twenties, and he has just convinced some of the greatest religious scholars of Persia of the truth of these unusual teachings. He has spent more than half his life studying the teachings of Islam, and risen about as high as he can get, and he is still only a young man. There is a reason that many people thronged to the mosque in Shiraz when Mulla Husayn was giving his sermons during that time between when he first recognized the Bab and the arrival of the next Letters of the Living.

This was no ordinary scholar.

Now let's fast forward a short bit.

He has already proven himself to be the most learned of the Shaykhi school of thought. He has defeated the leading mujtahid's of Persia. And in the course of a single evening, really in just a few hours, he is completely won over to the cause of the Bab. In so short a time he has become totally subservient to an unschooled merchant six years his junior.

Jesus chose an uneducated fisherman to be His chief disciple, and used the illiterate to illumine the world. The Bab chose the most learned, the best educated, the recognizable leaders of His day to demonstrate His overwhelming majesty.

To me, there are many lessons in this story that are relevant to us today.

First is the extreme humility that Mulla Husayn showed. Although I didn't mention it above, when he first went to that Mujtahid in Isfahan, he was dressed simply, even covered in the dirt of the road. This was a far cry from the other students who were there, all dressed in their finery, showing off their wealth and station to each other. It was this simple demonstration of sincerity that first caught Muhammad-Baqir's attention. This humility is further demonstrated when he meets the Bab. Although he shows reluctance to accept Him at first, causing him regret for the rest of his life, he quickly submits to the greater wisdom of the Bab, a submission that is to last to his dying day.

We, too, should strive to demonstrate such humility.

Secondly, he showed sincerity, perseverance, commitment, and many other virtues. He strove to learn all he could about Islam, and put it into practice to the best of his ability.

We, too, should do all we can to better understand these great teachings. We should strive to put all these aspects of the teachings into practice in our daily life. Mulla Husayn did not know that it was his simple austerity that would first open the door, but he still lived it according to his understanding. We, too, do not know which aspect of the faith will open the hearts of those who are watching us.

Third, he showed great courage. When we consider his life, we often think of the courage he showed during that last great battle in Mazindaran, at the fort of Shaykh Tabarsi, but really, that courage is demonstrated here much earlier. He was fearless, yet courteous, in his presentation of what he felt to be the truth.

There is a lot more to this story, and much more that we can learn from it, but this is a good beginning.