Stories Known in the Family Regarding Covenant-Breaking

Recounted by Hassan Jalal Shahid to His Daughter Parvine

The will of Bahaullah was very clear. He had appointed Abdul Baha, the Master, Ghosneh A’zam as his successor, to be followed by Ghosneh Akbar, Mirza Mohammad Ali. They were half brothers, from different mothers. Abdul Baha’s younger brother from his mother, Ghosneh Athar, had died in an accident in the citadel of Acre where Bahaullah was for a time imprisoned. He had been pacing the terrace of the prison while praying and fell through an opening in the floor. The Master’s sister, Bahiyyeh Khanum, the third child from Bahaullah’s first wife, was present and often told the story. These days the Bahais recount a very shocking addendum to the story of Ghosneh Athar’s accident, saying that as he lay dying, Bahaullah, shocked and upset by the incident, had told him that I could save your life if you so wish, but Ghosneh Athar’s answer had been ‘facilitate the coming of pilgrims to visit you instead and consider me a sacrifice to your cause’. (The words ‘consider me’, or ‘I am a sacrifice to you’, is a translation of the oft repeated Farsi expression of politesse ghorbaneh shoma). Bahiyyeh Khanum, who had been present when the incident took place and told the story, never gave it that spin.

Abdul Baha and his family lived in Acre in the house of Abboud, while the rest of the family lived in Bahji. He was in charge of the affairs and work of the community, meeting officials such as Sadek Pasha the governor and other government and religious personalities and officials, receiving pilgrims and attending to their need. Being his father’s right hand man was something he had done from an early age and it took up a lot of his time. Another strange spin that the Bahais now add to the fact that Abdul Baha lived in Acre while the rest of the family lived in Bahji, is that Bahaullah had maybe deliberately done that to keep Abdul Baha separated from the others because he had an intimation, maybe, of what was to come.

After the passing away of Bahaullah, no one in Abdul Baha’s immediate family could explain why the other members of the family joined Mirza Mohammad Ali and turned against the Master. Abdul Baha did his utmost best to prevent a rift occurring amongst the family. My mother, Ruha Khanum, the second of the Master’s four surviving children, and who was fourteen when Bahaullah passed away, told us stories of what happened at the time. Amongst others, how she had gone to see her uncle Mirza Mohammad Ali in Bahji and had fallen on his knees, begging him not to allow a split to occur in the family, (especially so in view of the initial split that had occurred between Bahaullah and his half brother Mirza Yahya Azal) but to no avail. In an effort to offset this split the Master considered the betrothal of my mother to the son of Mirza Mohammad Ali, Sho’a’ullah, who was 19 at the time. To prevent this from happening, Mirza Mohammad Ali sent his son to the USA.

Here I want to point out that according to my mother, two persons were primarily the cause of the split that occurred. One was Mirza Mohammad Ali and the other was Mirza Majdedine, his cousin, who was the son of Agha Musayeh Kalim, often referred to as the most faithful brother of Bahaullah, and who also lived at the Mansion in Bahji.

Here I want to narrate an interesting occurrence. In the late 1940s the Iranian government of the late Shah recognized Israel de facto and sent a representative to the country called Mr. Safiniya. Mr. Nayer Afnan, (grandson of Bahaullah and your grandfather, Parvine) and I went to Jerusalem to meet Mr. Safiniya. An intelligent and well-read man, he had been Iranian Ambassador in several European capitals and now towards the end of his career, had taken the post in Israel for medical reasons. He told us that he was not a religious person, and that if he had wanted to be one he would have been a Zoroastrian, for in his estimation all other religions had built on what Zoroaster had established. However, he was greatly interested in the historical aspects of the Cause and was very curious to know what had caused the rift between the sons of Bahaullah. Mr. Nayer Afnan suggested that he should visit Mirza Majdedine who was then in his eighties and living in Acre. Mr. Safiniya welcomed the idea and invited us to return to Jerusalem the following week to hear the outcome of the visit.

Upon our return he told us that he had had a long conversation with Mirza Majdedine whom he had found both intelligent and alert in mind. The first thing that he had told Safiniya was that he accepted the will of Bahaullah and there was no dispute about it — first the Master and then Mirza Mohammad Ali. What went wrong, according to Mirza Majdedine was that the Master had claimed that he was a new revelation. To this Safiniya responded that in his many readings of the writings of the Master he had never come across such a claim made by him, that the plaque at the gate of his house at No. 7 Persian Street in Haifa named him as Abdul Baha Abbas (Abdul Baha translating as Servant of Baha) and that if Mirza Majdedine had any written proof that the Master had made such a claim he would be very interested to see it. Mirza Majdedine did not have any such documentation to prove his point. This was news to us as well, since we had never heard this accusations being made of the Master by his brothers. We then asked Mr. Safiniya what his own conclusion was, considering the accusation, lack of proof thereof and this being put forward as the reason for the serious disagreement between the half brothers. Mr. Safiniya could not figure it out and remained baffled by the story.

Considering my relations with the children and grandchildren of the ‘covenant breakers’, whether the offspring of Yahya Sobhiyeh Azal, or the brothers of the Master, I was only following the example set by my grandfather, Abdul Baha. He had sent for the sons and grandchildren of Azal, who lived in Famagusta in Cyprus to come and live in Haifa. Mirza Ahmad Azal, the son of Subhi Azal, Jalal Azal and his sister Na’ereh Khanum, both grandchildren of Subhi Azal, did so. Mirza Ahmad lived in the Pilgrim’s house next to the shrine of the Bab on Mt. Carmel. Na’ereh Khanum was for many years, the dame de companie of Bahiyyeh Khanum, the Master’s sister, and Jalal Azal, with the recommendation of the Master, found a job in the civil service and both remained in Haifa until the end of the British Mandate in 1948.

The Master considered the family of Yahya Sobhiyeh Azal innocent and did not blame them for the split between Bahaullah and his brother, though he had been the first to refute Bahaullah’s mission by claiming that he was ‘him whom God shall make manifest’. Just the opposite, he brought them back into the family and the Cause and did not hold them responsible for what their father or grandfather had done. In the same way, how could I hold Negar [Bahai-Emsallem] or any of the other descendants of the original breakaway branches of the family responsible for what their grandfathers had done?

At this point I would like to stress the contrast between the Master’s attitude and that of Shoghi Effendi who not only accused us of being covenant breakers, but went on to claim that ‘covenant breaking is transmitted through the mother’s milk’ – (as was said about you, Parvine). What covenant had we broken? The four daughters of the Master and their families accepted and respected the will of Abdul Baha regarding the Guardianship of Shoghi Effendi. There was never any dispute there. Mirza Mohammad Ali and those around him accepted the will of Bahaullah, but manufactured the accusation that the Master had claimed that he was a new revelation (though they could not provide any proof of it) and therefore broke away from him. In other words, the Master had been at fault and their actions justified.

When it came to Shoghi Effendi, all the family obediently accepted him as the Guardian of the Cause. The family did not break any covenant and accepted every word in the will of Abdul Baha regarding Shoghi Effendi’s position. So on what basis were we deemed covenant breakers?