Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Baha'i Faith: Early Days In Egypt

Introduction

The Baha'i Faith had spread to Egypt shortly after Baha'u'llah had declared that He is the Promised One of all ages. As the Baha'i Faith had established its early roots in that land, it did indeed influence many enlightened Egyptians and had attracted many of the society's notables and thinkers, resulting in rapid growth of its community. However from the mid 1920s on, the Baha'is of Egypt have endured numerous court battles, oppression, harassment, imprisonment, degradation and discrimination. In spite of these recurrent challenges, the Baha'i community was still able to thrive and grow, and its Institutions had matured and became well established until the Presidential Decree of 1960 that had dissolved its Institutions, confiscated its properties and essentially imposed a ban on all its activities. The leaders of the Baha'i community from all corners of the country were also arrested and interrogated. The following is a summary of the historical events of that early period of the Baha'i Faith in Egypt.

Mirza Abu'l-Fadl

Prior to 1895, Baha'is in Egypt were Persian merchants who had settled in Cairo and Alexandria. In July 1895 a preeminent Persian Baha'i scholar and author, Mirza Abu'l-Fadl Gulpaygani (1844-1914) arrived in Cairo. As a lecturer at al-Azhar University, the foremost Institution of higher learning in the Muslim world, Abu'l-Fadl became an instant attraction to several enlightened students who had surrounded him to immerse themselves in his profound knowledge and understanding. Subsequently about thirty of them declared their belief in Baha'u'llah as a Messenger of God and became the first group of native Egyptian Baha'is.
These early Egyptian Baha'is were instrumental in developing the Baha'i Faith in Egypt. (Ref.1)

Mirza Abu'l-Fadl was then befriended by a number of writers and magazine editors who had written about him in the Egyptian media and had published his writings as well. In the subsequent years he traveled extensively to Europe and then America where he remained between 1901 and 1904, during which he had lectured, authored and taught widely. He later returned to Egypt and remained there until his passing in 1914 in Cairo where he was buried. Some of his most important works are: Baha'i Proofs and Fara'id (The Peerless Gems).

By the early 1900s, Cairo became the publishing centre of Baha'i books that were authored in Arabic, and Egypt became the transit point for western Baha'i pilgrims on their way to Acre (Akko) in Palestine where the Baha'i Holy family was imprisoned.

Abdu'l-Baha

After the passing of Baha'u'llah the founder of the Baha'i Faith, His eldest son Abbas Effendi, later titled Abdu'l-Baha, was appointed in his father's will as the leader of the Baha'i community. Abdu'l-Baha Abbas began visiting Egypt in September 1910 shortly after his release from imprisonment. During these visits, he spent a significant amount of time in Alexandria, Port-Said and Ismailia. In total, the time spent in Egypt by Abdu'l-Baha was approximately two years. As a result of these visits, many intellectuals and influential figures of the Egyptian society were attracted to his wisdom, learning and enlightenment. Among them were prominent figures such as Imam Muhammad Abdu'h and Gamal el-Din el-Afghani.

Gamal el-Din el-Afghani

Muhammad Abdu'h, a liberal Islamic reformer and teacher, had already spent some time with Abdu'l-Baha in the 1880s and was greatly influenced by his teachings. On Abdu'h's return to Egypt after his exile he was appointed as the Grand Mufti of Egypt, became a leading teacher at al-Azhar University, and became well recognized in Egypt as one of its greatest thinkers and reformers. He was also the editor-in-chief of the Egyptian Government's official gazette Al Waqa'le Al Masriyya before his exile in 1882. He had always extended warm welcome and respect for Abdu'l-Baha in spite of opposition by some of the more conservative and insular elements of the Egyptian society at that time. Over the years, he continued communication and correspondence with Abdu'l-Baha. Those early free thinkers had seen clearly that the teachings of Baha'u'llah would provide the necessary salvation for the ills of the Egyptian society. In addition to calling for political and language reforms, he also attempted to reform al-Azhar and the Islamic (Shariah) laws, but his plans, however, were undermined and opposed by those who were insular and hungry for leadership and power, both political and religious.

Imam Muhammad Abdu'h Khairallah

Many other Egyptians were attracted to Abdu'l-Baha during his sojourn there, leading to steady growth of the Baha'i community through the mid-1920s. In addition to those from the country's Muslim religious majority, others accepting the Baha'i Faith came from diverse backgrounds and different religious minorities such as Coptic Christian, Kurdish and Armenian. They were residents of several important cities, which were frequented by Abdu'l-Baha, such as Cairo, Port-Said, Alexandria and Ismailia. When Abdu'l-Baha passed away in 1921, the Egyptian press provided extensive coverage of his funeral and showed a great deal of admiration and respect for his person.

The influence, strength and prosperity of the Baha'i community in Egypt in those early days was so significant to the extent that the Egyptian Bahai's were able to participate in contributing funds towards the construction of the first Baha'i House of Worship in the west which was being built in Wilmette, Illinois north of the city of Chicago. The first National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of Egypt was formed in 1924, a sign of the maturation of that Baha'i community enabling it to elect the highest administrative body on a national level. Subsequently, several Local Spiritual Assemblies were also elected in cities were the Baha'i population was large enough to allow the establishment such local administrative institutions. (Ref.2)

3 comments:

george wesley said...

What an incredibly valuable history of the Faith in Egypt you are outlining! To read the Abdu'l-Baha was extolled in the Egyptian press at the time of his passing is very moving. How would the Egypian journalists of that day view the present circumstance for reporting on the Baha'i Faith?

Marco said...

Great post!
I think Mirza Haydar Ali, one of the early believers, also visited Egypt.

Anonymous said...

As a Moslem I am proud that the leadership of Al-Azhar in Egypt was open-minded and was a source of light to the world. It is time that the Moslem world go back to its original Islamic teachings of enlightenment, tolerance, compassion, and sacrifice for the well being of others (not sacrifice to kill or hurt others). I hope that a new generation of Moslem scholars will arise to support the original teachings of Islam and dispell all the hatred that eminates from the dark side of those who have lost their way to true Islam.
Mahmoud in Alberta, Canada

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