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Have you ever felt harassed, bullied, slandered or persecuted? Most of us have. What do you think of as the worst possible kind of persecution?
Lots of people would probably say that physical torture and imprisonment would represent the absolute worst kind of persecution.
But let’s ask an expert that question. Abdu’l-Baha, the son of the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, Baha’u’llah, suffered enormously for his beliefs. When Baha’u’llah began teaching his new Faith, he lost all of his possessions, was exiled, tortured and held captive in the worst Middle Eastern prisons for forty years. Abdu’l-Baha accompanied him every step of the way, and was a prisoner for another sixteen years after Baha’u’llah’s passing in 1892. Finally freed by the Young Turk rebellion against the Ottoman Empire and its despotic Sultan Abdu’l-Hamid II in 1908, Abdu’l-Baha traveled to the West, where he was asked about the worst persecution he suffered.
He described three different kinds of persecution, and surprisingly said the first two were “easy to bear”—but that the third kind was the most difficult:
When Abdu’l-Baha was sent to Akka, he experienced three kinds of persecution. Two kinds were easy to bear. When he arrived in Akka they placed chains upon his limbs and circlets of steel were locked around his ankles and knees. While the guards were doing this Abdu’l-Baha laughed and sang. They were astonished and said, “How is this? You are laughing and singing. When prisoners are ironed in this way, they usually cry out, weep and lament.” Abdu’l-Baha replied, “I rejoice because you are doing me a great kindness; you are making me very happy. For a long time I have wished to know the feelings of a prisoner in irons, to experience what other men have been subjected to. I have heard of this; now you have taught me what it is. You have given me this opportunity. Therefore I sing and am very happy. I am very thankful to you.”
After a time the men who had been appointed to keep guard over me became as loving brothers and companions. They strove to lighten my imprisonment by acts of kindness. They said, “In order that you may not be subjected to the jeers of the people when you walk upon the streets we will arrange your clothing so these chains are not visible.” They took the chains which were upon my limbs, gathered the ends together and wrapped them as a girdle around my waist, then arranged my clothing so no chains were visible. One day I wished to go to the hammam (public bath). The guards said, “It will not be possible for you to go to the bath unless these chains are removed; and furthermore it will attract notice from the people in the streets.” Abdu’l-Baha said, “I will go.”
The guards then carefully gathered the hanging chains around my waist, covered them with my clothing and we went forth. As we passed through the streets, Abdu’l-Baha took the chains from his waist, flung their loose, dangling ends over his shoulders in full view and walked to the hamman, followed by a great crowd of hooting, jeering people. The guards were most unhappy, but Abdu’l-Baha was in supreme joy because of this opportunity to walk in the freedom of the Pathway of God. After many years the doors of Akka were opened, the prison walls thrown down and the chains which Abdu’l-Hamid had placed upon the body of Abdu’l-Baha were put around the neck of Abdu’l-Hamid himself.
In brief, this kind of persecution was easy to bear. There was a second form of persecution to which Abdu’l-Baha was continually subjected at Akka. Spies and enemies were constantly informing the authorities that he was plotting against the government, that he was secretly instigating revolution and teaching principles in opposition to the Muslim religion. In consequence of these reports and statements Abdu’l-Baha underwent a great deal of restriction, difficulty and personal discomfort, but, Praise be to God! always in the utmost joy and exaltation. Sometimes the rigour of his restriction was increased; often he was threatened with death; often threatened with confinement in another prison fortress, but nothing was accomplished by his enemies that could lessen his complete happiness. On the contrary, the more falsehoods they invented, the more evident became his innocence and sincerity, the more constant his thanksgiving and rejoicing. This form of persecution was likewise easy to bear. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 3, pp. 88-89.
Here’s the remarkable part—while Abdu’l-Baha said the physical confinement, the chains, the threats, the harsh prison conditions and the deprivation of freedom were “easy to bear,” he also said that a more psychological and spiritual kind of imprisonment was much harder to understand and withstand:
But there was a third kind of persecution which brought Abdu’l-Baha sorrow and unhappiness, a persecution difficult to bear: the bitter words and criticisms of the friends. Where love was expected, hatred and jealousy was found; instead of friendship and kindness, envy and discord were manifested; instead of harmony there appeared dissension and ill-wishing; in place of assistance and appreciation, calumny, falsehood and slander. This is hard to bear. – Ibid.
Abdu’l-Baha’s amazing conclusion allowed him to give this advice to all people of faith:
All who stand up in the cause of God will be persecuted and misunderstood. It hath ever been so, and will ever be. Let neither enemy nor friend disturb your composure, destroy your happiness, deter your accomplishment. Rely wholly upon God. Then will persecution and slander make you the more radiant. The designs of your enemies will rebound upon them. They, not you, will suffer.
Oppression is the wind that doth fan the fire of the Love of God. Welcome persecution and bitterness. A soldier may bear arms, but until he hath faced the enemy in battle he hath not earned his place in the king’s army. Let nothing defeat you. God is your helper. God is invincible. Be firm in the Heavenly Covenant. Pray for strength. It will be given to you, no matter how difficult the conditions. – Ibid.