American Presbyterian missionary interviews Abdul Baha in 1901
I sent word by this good lady to Abbas Effendi, and he appointed nine o’clock the next morning for an interview. Chaplain Wells went with me. The Effendi has two houses in Haifa, one for his family, in which the American lady pilgrims are entertained, and one down town, where he receives only men. Here his Persian followers meet him. They bow in worship when they meet him on the street or when they hear his voice. On Friday he prays with the Muslims in the mosque, as he is still reputed a good Mohammedan of the Shi’ite sect.
We entered a large reception-room, at one end of which was a long divan covered, as usual in Syria, with a white cloth. In a moment he came in and saluted us cordially with the usual Arabic compliments, and then sat down on the end of the divan next to the wall and invited us to sit next to him.
Baha’u’llah, the father of Abbas, used to wear a veil in the street and live secluded from the gaze of men, living in an atmosphere of mystery which greatly impressed his devout Persian followers. But Abbas Effendi, on succeeding his father, threw off this reserve, and is a man among men. He has been in Beirut often, and has a reputation of being a great scholar in Persian, Turkish, and Arabic, writing with equal ease’and eloquence in all. He visits his friends in Haifa, and is a man of great affability and courtesy— traits which characterize many of the Mohammedan and Druze Sheikhs and Effendis whom I know in Beirut, Sidon, Damascus, and Mount Lebanon. After another round of salutations, I introduced myself and Chaplain Wells, and told him that, although a resident of Syria for forty-five years, I had never visited Haifa before, and, having heard and read much of his father and himself, I was glad to meet him.
He asked my profession, I told him I was an American missionary, and was connected with the American Press and Publishing House in Beirut.
“Yes,” said he, “I know your Press and your books. I have been in Beirut, and knew Dr. Van Dyke, who was a most genial, learned, and eloquent man, and I highly esteemed him.”
I said his greatest work was the translation of the Bible into Arabic.
He at once rejoined: “Very true. It is the best translation from the original made into any Eastern language. It is far superior to the Turkish and the Persian versions. The Persian especially is very defective. Nothing is more difficult than to translate the Bible from its original tongues. The translator must fully understand the genius of both languages and grasp the inner spiritual meaning. For instance, Jesus the Christ said, ‘I am the bread which came down from heaven.’ Now, he did not mean that he was literally bread, but bread signifies grace and blessing; I came down from heaven as grace and blessing to men’s souls. But if you translate that into Persian literally, as bread, it would not be understood. The same difficulty exists,” he continued, “in translating the Quran into another language.”
I said that I quite agreed with him, as the English translations of the Quran are in a great part dry and vapid, but that there is a difference between translating a text and explaining it. A translator must be faithful to the text itself.
He then said that hundreds had tried to translate the Quran from Arabic into Persian, including the great Zamakhshari, and all had utterly failed.
I remarked that it was a great comfort that the Bible was so well translated into Arabic, and had been so widely distributed, and that since 1865, when Dr. Van Dyke completed the translation of the whole Bible, our Press had issued more than six hundred thousand copies, and this year would issue from thirty thousand to fifty thousand copies.
I then remarked that the Mohammedans object to our use of the term “Son of God” and asked him if he regarded Christ as the Son of God.
He said : “Yes, I do; I believe in the Trinity. But the Trinity is a doctrine above human comprehension, and yet it can be understood.”
He then asked me: “Did Christ understand the Trine personality of the Deity, i.e., the Trinity?.”
I said, “Most certainly.”
“Then,” said he, “it is understandable, yet we cannot understand it.”
I replied, “There are many things in nature which we believe and yet cannot understand.” I told him the story of the old man who overheard a young man exclaim to a crowd of his companions, “I will never believe what I cannot understand.” The old man said to him, “Do you see those animals in the field—the cattle eating grassl and it turns into hair on their backs; sheep eating the same grass, and it turns into wool; and swine eating it, and it becomes bristles on their backs; do you believe this?” The youth said, “Yes.” “Do you understand it?” “No.” “Then,” said the old man, “never say you will not believe what you do not understand.”
The Effendi remarked: “Yes, that is like a similar remark made once by a Persian to the famous Zamakhshari, ‘I cannot understand this doctrine of God’s Unity and Eternity, and I will not believe it.’ Zamakhshari replied, ‘Do you understand the watery secretions of your own body?’ ‘No.’ ‘But you believe they exist? Then say no more you will not believe what you do not understand.’”
I then explained to the Effendi our view of salvation by faith in Christ; that whosoever beiieveth in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life, and that, being justified by faith, we have peace with God; that Christ has paid the ransom, and now God can be just, and yet the justifier of them who believe. “And does your excellency believe this?” He replied promptly, “Yes.” “And do you accept the Christ as your Saviour?” He said, “Yes.” “And do you believe that Jesus the Christ will come again and judge the world?” He said, “Yes.”
I then drew a little nearer to him and said: “My dear friend, I am more than sixty-eight years of age, and you are almost as old, and soon we shall stand together before the judgment seat of Christ. Now I want to ask you a very plain question, I have seen in an American paper [the “Literary Digest”] a statement that an American woman, evidently of sincere character, had stated that she came to Haifa and visited you, and that when she entered your room she felt that she was in the very presence of the Son of God, the Christ, and that she held out her arms, crying, ‘My Lord, my Lord’ and rushed to you, kneeling at your blessed feet, sobbing like a child. Now, I could not believe this, and thought it a newspaper invention. I wish to ask you whether this is true. Can it be right for the creature to accept the worship due only to the Creator?”
He smiled and seemed somewhat disturbed, and said, “What is this sudden change of subject? Where were we? – discoursing on the high themes of the Trinity and redemption and divine mysteries, and now you suddenly open an entirely different subject. This is entirely different; let us keep to theological themes.”
I replied: “It is a change of subject, but I am seriously anxious to know whether that statement is true.”
He then said very calmly, “I am only the poorest and humblest of servants”
I saw that he was not disposed to answer such a point-blank question and seemed much embarrassed, and glanced towards an attendant or disciple, a young Persian, who sat in a chair facing us.
So I took up another question. I said : “The Christ promised to send the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete. Now, the Mohammedans claim that Mohammed is the Paraclete. We claim and believe that He is the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity.”
“Yes,” said he, “I know that you believe that. That is your doctrine; but that is a very profound subject and very important.”
I saw from his manner that he was getting weary of talking, and told him who my companion was — the Rev. Captain Wells, a United States chaplain from the Philippines, who was a strong temperance advocate, and had made a report to President McKinley urging the prohibition of the use of liquor in the United States army. He expressed his approval of the total abstinence principle and his gratification that there is a temperance reading-room in Beirut.
I then alluded to the “Episode of the Bab,” written by Professor E. G. Browne, of Cambridge, and asked him if he knew Professor Browne and his book? He replied: “Professor Browne has not comprehended our views. He heard us and then heard our enemies [the Azalis], and wrote down the views of all. How can he get the truth? Now, supposing that a man wanted to learn about the Jews, and you are, we will suppose, an anti-Semite. He asks you about the Jews and writes down your views. Then he asks a Rabbi and takes down his views, and prints both. How can he get at the real truth? So with Professor Browne. He sees us through the eyes of our enemies.”
I then invited the Effendi to let me know when he came to Beirut, that I might call on him. He replied : “When I come to Beirut, I shall do myself the honor of calling upon you.”
And then we took our leave, with the usual profuse Arabic salutations.
Now, what can one say in brief of such a man? Whether intentionally on his part or not, he is now acting what seems to be a double part — a Muslim in the mosque, a Christ, or at least a Christian mystic, at his own house. He prays with the Muslims, “There is no God but God,” and expounds the Gospels as an incarnation of the Son of God. His dislike of Professor Browne comes from the fact that Professor Browne visited Subh i Azal in Cyprus and obtained from him documents which reflect seriously upon Baha’u’llah, and charge him with assassination and other crimes.
His declarations of belief in the Trinity and redemption through the Christ must be interpreted in the light of Sufist pantheism and of his belief in a succession of incarnations, of which his followers regard him as the last and greatest.
It is difficult to regard without indignation the Babi proselytism now being carried on in the United States. One American woman who passed through Beirut recently, en route for the Abbas Effendi shrine, stated that she was at first an agnostic and found that a failure; then she tried Theosophy, and found that too thin; then she tried Christian Science and obtained a diploma authorizing her to heal the sick and raise the dead, and found that a sham, and now was on her way to see what Abbas Effendi had to offer!
Surely that woman has found out what it is to feed on ashes.
At the military barracks in Beirut is a tower clock with an eastern face keeping eastern time, in which it is always twelve o’clock at sunset, and a western face keeping European time. Abbas Effendi seems to the people of Syria to have these two faces — the eastern for the Muslims and the Turkish Government by which he is kept in exile from Persia; and the western for the pilgrims who come from New York and Chicago.
On Mount Carmel are certain round stones, geodes of flint, hollow and lined with crystals of quartz. The people call them Elijah’s watermelons. They look smooth and round and melon-like on the outside, but inside are nothing but crystals, which would tax the digestion of a tougher man than even the stalwart Tishbite. These pilgrims are attracted by the rumor of spiritual fruits in Haifa just under the Carmel of Elijah, but they may find to their sorrow that there is no more true nourishment in them than in Elijah’s watermelons.