The Master in 'Akka

After I put up the book review of Church and State, I realised that it would be a good idea to put up more book reviews of Kalimat Press books. Kalimat Press books continue to be available on the web site, . We can all help Tony out by writing book reviews of any Kalimat Press books we have read and continuing to buy Kalimat Press books from the web site.

I read a few Kalimat Press books in 2005. Kalimat puts out quite a few history books and I have been getting into those. Baha'u'llah tells us to read his writings morning and evening and, as a result, I have become familiar with Baha'u'llah's personality and thinking. But I realised that there was a big gap in my understanding of Abdu'l-Baha. I therefore decided to read books containing the memoirs of people who had spent a lot of time with Abdu'l-Baha.

One book in particular that stands out in this category is The Master in 'Akka by Myron H Phelps. The dustjacket tells us that Phelps was an American lawyer from New York. He was not a Baha'i but was greatly attracted to Abdu'l-Baha and visited him for one month in December 1902. The next year, he published a book called Life and Teachings of Abbas Effendi. The book The Master in 'Akka reprints the first six chapters of Phelps's book.

As the dust jacket says, Phelps "records with tender devotion the daily life and habits of the Master -- his service to the poor, his crushing workday, his tolerance, his gait, his gestures, even the food that he ate." And this really is true; it's an extraordinary account of Abdu'l-Baha's daily life. It got me off my butt; although, I could not in my wildest dreams sustain the routine that Abdu'l-Baha somehow managed to maintain.

The book shows is that, single-handedly, Abdu'l-Baha managed to feed and clothe all the poor in Akka. They were entirely dependent on him. At the beginning of each winter, he gave out coats to all the poor. He never had more than one coat for himself. At one time, Abdu'l-Baha's wife ordered another coat for him and hid it away. When his wife was away, Abdu'l-Baha asked one of his daughters if he had another coat. She was obliged to say that he did. He asked her to go and get it, which she did, and he gave it to the poor. He couldn't see any reason why he should have two coats when others would die if they did not have one.

One of the unique features of the book is that it contains the memoirs of the Greatest Holy Leaf. Because of the constraints placed on woman at the time, Phelps was unable to speak to the Greatest Holy Leaf face to face. To get around this, he corresponded with her while he was there. Much of the book The Master in 'Akka is devoted to her account of her life. Apart from Phelps's striking description of Abdu'l-Baha's daily routine, this book is unique and remarkable because of the Greatest Holy Leaf's account. She tells us things you would not read anywhere else, such as the story of the coat above.

One day, I was reading the book in a cafe. I was at the part where the Greatest Holy Leaf was describing how life was for the holy family in Baghdad when Baha'u'llah was in Kurdistan. We have some idea of how Baha'u'llah survived during those two years in the mountains, but there is not a lot of detail about how the family survived without him. In particular, the account tells us the effect of Baha'u'llah's absence on Abdu'l-Baha, who was just a youngster at the time. As you can imagine, he mourned his father's absence. For the whole two years that Baha'u'llah was gone, the family had no idea whether they would see him again. And then when he did show up, it was completely out of the blue. For me, the most memorable scene that the Greatest Holy Leaf describes is the interaction between Baha'u'llah and Abdu'l-Baha when Baha'u'llah walked through the door unexpectedly after all that time. There I was in the cafe with tears pouring down my face. I was so moved; I felt like everyone was staring at me, although of course they weren't.

I could go on retelling the stories in the book but, instead, I just want to give you an idea that this book is filled with gems that you will not find anywhere else. As the dustjacket tells us: "this is the longest and most complete interview of the Holy Leaf known to exist."

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