The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.
Who do you think people tend to trust most?
In other words, what type of person seems most trustworthy? Think about it this way: who, if you heard a message delivered by someone you didn’t know, would make the most trusted messenger?
At one point in my checkered career I had to answer that question. In fact, the success of a big project depended on it. I had joined with a small group of people in California to try to pass a ballot initiative to tax tobacco products, and use that additional tax revenue to help people stop smoking. We also thought that more expensive cigarettes would mean fewer people would start smoking in the first place.
We didn’t have much money for our statewide campaign—a paltry million dollars—and we were up against a very well-funded opposition. The tobacco industry had decided to spend whatever it took to defeat our initiative—ten, twenty or thirty million dollars. (At the end of the campaign, they actually spent $36 million.) The tobacco industry representatives knew a successful tobacco tax initiative in California would diminish their sales and soon spread to other states and countries.
So we conducted a poll. We asked people who they trusted most, and when the poll results came in we saw two categories at the top—doctors and nurses. When we asked our respondents why they trusted doctors and nurses so much, they overwhelmingly said “because they chose lives of service to others.”
[After we conducted the poll and got our answers, we asked the Surgeon General of the United States to be our spokesperson, and he agreed. Then, even vastly outspent and against such huge odds, we won.]
Our culture still tends to give the word “servant” a negative connotation–but we do universally admire and appreciate those who dedicate their lives to the service of humanity. That kind of dedication, to bravely work for the benefit of those you don’t even know, makes for a truly altruistic person. We respect and praise the selflessness of those who expend their energies helping humanity, as we should.
For the world’s Baha’is, and for many other people who aren’t Baha’is, Abdu’l-Baha exemplifies that altruistic ideal of selfless service.
Named Abbas at his birth in 1844 in Persia, Abdu’l-Baha was the eldest son of Baha’u’llah (whose title means “the Glory of God), a nobleman and the son of a government minister. When Baha’u’llah received the first intimation of his mission as the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, in a prison in Tehran called the Black Pit, Abdu’l-Baha was just eight years old. Suffering along with his father and the rest of the family, Abdu’l-Baha accompanied Baha’u’llah during four successive exiles and banishments, served as Baha’u’llah’s closest helper and associate, and spent forty years in a series of prison cells and under house arrest, first as his father’s companion and then as his successor.
His title–Abdu’l-Baha–means “the servant of Baha.” He claimed no station for himself beyond that position, saying “Service to all the human race is my perpetual religion.” – Abdu’l-Baha in London, p. 109.
Baha’is view Abdu’l-Baha, not as a prophet, but as the exemplar of what it means to be a true Baha’i:
Let your actions cry aloud to the world that you are indeed Baha’is, for it is actions that speak to the world and are the cause of the progress of humanity.
If we are true Baha’is speech is not needed. Our actions will help the world, will spread civilization, will help the progress of science, and cause the arts to develop. Without action nothing in the material world can be accomplished, neither can words unaided advance a man in the spiritual Kingdom. It is not through lip-service only that the elect of God have attained to holiness, but by patient lives of active service they have brought light into the world.
Therefore strive that your actions day by day may be beautiful prayers. Turn towards God, and seek always to do that which is right and noble. Enrich the poor, raise the fallen, comfort the sorrowful, bring healing to the sick, reassure the fearful, rescue the oppressed, bring hope to the hopeless, shelter the destitute! – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 80.
Named the center of Baha’u’llah’s covenant in his will and testament, Abdu’l-Baha assumed the leadership of the small group of maybe 50,000 Baha’is in 1892. Their numbers decimated by vicious, genocidal persecution in the countries of the Ottoman Empire, the worldwide Baha’i community had suffered enormously, and looked to Abdu’l-Baha—who many called “the Master”—to lead them.
His humble, peace-loving approach, characterized by sacrifice and service for others, spread the Baha’i teachings around the world.