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On October 22, 1817, a newborn named Mirza Husayn Ali came into the world. The son of a notable landowner and provincial governor of Persia named Abbas Nuri Mirza Buzurg and his wife, Khadijih Khanum, this infant had a remarkable lineage. Descended from both the prophet Abraham through his wife Keturah and from Zoroaster, the founder of Zoroastrianism, his ancestry also traced back through the line of Persia’s ancient Sassanian kings, who ruled their extensive pre-Muslim Empire for centuries.
From the time of his early childhood, prominent figures in the Persian government and clergy expected Mirza Husayn Ali to do great things. Many reached that conclusion because, although he never attended any school, he seemed to possess a preternatural intelligence and extraordinary powers of perception from his earliest ages. At the age of seven, for example, he appeared before the court of the Shah to argue a legal case on behalf of his father—and won.
Mirza Husayn Ali grew up in relative luxury, accustomed to the environs of the royal court. When his father died in 1839, he was only 22 years old—but he was offered his father’s former post in the royal court. He refused the appointment, and the Grand Vizier reportedly said:
“Mirza Husayn-Ali was intended for a work of greater magnitude, and the arena of government was too small a field for his capacities.” – H.M. Balyuzi, Baha’u’llah, p. 10.
Instead of pursuing the lucrative political career his government offered him, Mirza Husayn Ali had already turned his attention toward the pressing social problems he wanted to address—chiefly the poverty and privation that surrounded him in Tehran, Persia’s capital.
When his father passed away, Baha’u’llah freed his father’s indentured servants; and then opened his large home to feed and house the poor and homeless. He and his wife Navvab soon became known throughout the country as “The Father of the Poor” and “The Mother of Consolation” for their kindness, altruism and philanthropy.
One prominent Persian described Mirza Husayn Ali this way:
“He is one of the noble class, but above all ostentation, seldom attending stately functions. Extremely wealthy, but caring naught for luxury and sumptuous faring. Full of a marvellous wisdom is he, yet he has never been instructed of men, even when a young boy, not consenting to receive lessons from the usual teachers of youth. He is the helper of all in need of succour. A refuge for those in sorrowful weariness; a comfort to all the afflicted. A strong champion of those who suffer wrong. to the shelter of his house all who hunger or thirst are warmly welcomed. His hospitality is given freely to every comer. His doors are always opened to the friendless, and his heart to every tale of grief.
The people say: He refuses all the lucrative posts which are offered to him; surely even his wealth must diminish, if he despises all means of adding to it, whilst he continues to bestow his goods so lavishly on these worthless poor creatures.” – quoted by Lady Blomfield in The Chosen Highway, p. 23.
Mirza Husayn Ali’s daughter, Bahiyyih Khanum, later recounted that period of her mother’s and father’s life like this:
“Even in the early years of their married life, they, my father and mother, took part as little as possible in State functions, social ceremonies, and the luxurious habits of ordinary highly-placed and wealthy families in the land of Persia; she, and her noble-hearted husband, counted these worldly pleasures meaningless, and preferred rather to occupy themselves in caring for the poor, and for all who were unhappy, or in trouble.
From our doors nobody was ever turned away; the hospitable board was spread for all comers.
Constantly the poor women came to my mother, to whom they poured out their various stories of woe, to be comforted and consoled by her loving helpfulness.” – Ibid., p. 40.
But then, in 1844, when Mirza Husayn Ali was just a young man of 27, everything began to change. A revolutionary, charismatic new religion rose up in the midst of Persia’s very traditional and hidebound Muslim culture and proclaimed its advent, led by The Bab (which means The Gate). Mirza Husayn Ali recognized its mystical truths and became a Babi.
This new prophet, The Bab, with his role as the herald and forerunner of “Him whom God shall make manifest,” assured his followers that soon the “Promised One of All Ages” and “the Glory of God” would emerge, bringing an entirely new global Faith. The Bab counseled all people to “seek the presence of its author:”
Whenever ye learn that a new Cause hath appeared, ye must seek the presence of its author and must delve into his writings that haply ye may not be debarred from attaining unto Him Whom God shall make manifest at the hour of His manifestation. – The Bab, Selections from the Writings of the Bab, p. 144.
Although they never met in person, the Bab wrote to Mirza Husayn Ali and began referring to him as Baha’u’llah (which means the Glory of God). That title, given by one prophet to his successor, became the basis for the name Baha’i—a follower of Baha’u’llah, and a lover of the Glory of God.