posted November 7, 2007
“‘Hand of the Cause’ is not a title which can be given to anybody. Neither is it a position to be handed down to whomsoever may desire it. The more any soul becomes self-effacing, the more confirmed will he be in the service of the Cause of God; and the more humble, the nearer will he be to Him.” Attributed to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. (From Lights of Fortitude: Glimpses into the Lives of the Hands of the Cause of God by Barron Harper, George Ronald Publisher, 1997).
I am grateful to Mrs. Latifa Toeg of Russell (Ottawa), Ontario, formerly of Baghdad, now in her 90th year, and to her son Jalál of Manotick (Ottawa), who heard the story of Dr. Varqá’s confirmation as a Hand of the Cause by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá while he was still an infant from Bahíyyih Khánum, Dr. Varqá’s mother. Bahíyyih Khánum related this story to the Toegs while they were guests at her home in a suburb of north Tehran in 1970, after they had fled Iraq on their way to settle in Hull, Quebec. The following appreciation may also be noteworthy for the mention of Shoghi Effendi’s priceless gifts to the Varqá family.
The Distinguished Varqá Line
- Hájí Mullá Mihdíy-i-Yazdí. Great-grandfather of Dr. Varqá. Muslim cleric. Learned, eloquent and bold teacher of the Faith of the Báb. Highly praised by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.
- Mirzá ‘Alí-Muhammad Varqá. The poet-martyr. Dr. Varqá’s grandfather. Hand of the Cause of God (posthumous appointment by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá).
- Ruhúlláh Varqá. Son of Mirzá ‘Alí-Muhammad Varqá. Dr. Varqá’s uncle and expert teacher of the Faith. Imprisoned and died a martyr’s death in a Tehran prison with his father at age twelve.
- Valíyu’lláh Varqá. Dr.Varqá’s father. Appointed Chief Trustee of Huqúqu’lláh by Shoghi Effendi (1938). Appointed Hand of the Cause of God (1951).
- Dr. ‘Ali-Muhammad Varqá. Appointed Hand of the Cause of God (1955). Made Chief Trustee of Huqúqu’lláh to succeed his father in the same appointment.
Dr. Varqá and the Institution of the Hands of the Cause of God
On October 30, 2007 a memorial service was held at the Bahá’í Centre in Ottawa for the now departed last Hand of the Cause of God, Dr. ‘Ali-Muhammad Varqá. That memorial has prompted me to share the following thoughts and impressions of the life and character of this selfless personage who was the last living link with “the Sign of God on earth”, Shoghi Effendi Rabbani, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith (1897-1957). With the passing of Dr. Varqá on September 22, 2007 an illustrious chapter in Bahá’í history has now closed, one that witnessed the demise of a spiritually aristocratic institution created by Bahá’u’lláh in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, an institution that was dedicated to the learning and edification of the minds and hearts of Bahá’ís everywhere, and to the establishment of the Bahá’í Faith around the world.
The ministry of the entire body of the Hands of the Cause of God spanned approximately 119 years, from the first appointment of that immovable mountain of faith and certitude, Hájí Ákhúnd, about the time of his second visit to Akká in 1888, to the passing of Dr. Varqá in 2007. When we pause to consider what the distinguished company of these gifted and dedicated men and women has accomplished for the Bahá’í Faith, we are left with mingled feelings of gratitude and wonder at their accomplishments, coupled with a distinct sense of loss: the last Hand has passed to the Great Beyond…
Although the following reflections contain some biographical information, this message intends especially a keener appreciation of Dr. Varqá’s unique spiritual qualities, and purposes to honour and perpetuate his memory, both for those friends who had the privilege of meeting him, but also and especially for those who may not have had that opportunity. I cannot claim, of course, to have known Dr. Varqá well. The following personal reflections have been gathered after meeting him on only two occasions. The first was in the summer of 1980 at “The Gathering” held at the Hadden estate in Port Hope, Ontario, a week-end conference that was attended by no less than four Hands of the Cause: ‘Amatu’l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum, Dr. Varqá, Mr. William Sears and Mr. John Robarts. That occasion afforded a conversation with Dr. Varqá, as we stood on a path in the afternoon sun, that would leave a lasting impression of the gentle kindliness, the humane understanding, the ready compassion and the loving-kindness of this man. The second occasion occurred some 27 years later, 6 months before his passing, while I sat with the other pilgrims this past March (2007) in the elegant and well-appointed auditorium of the International Teaching Centre in Haifa and listened to his address. Both meetings, separated in time by almost three decades, were defining moments in a fuller appreciation of the station of these “billows of the Most Mighty Ocean”, these “stars of the firmament of Glory” who occupied the highest rank that could be conferred by the founders of the Bahá’í Faith upon one of their followers. A lasting impression is often created from just one brief encounter with a great soul. Such was the effect of meeting Dr. Varqá.
The Only Hand of the Cause Who Had Not Met Shoghi Effendi
It is not generally known that Dr. Varqá was the only Hand of the Cause who did not meet Shoghi Effendi in person. Dr. Varqá had more than once mentioned that he did not anticipate that Shoghi Effendi would leave this life at age 60, with the torch of his many, prodigious accomplishments burnt out by three and half decades of incessant, superhuman labour. No doubt he looked forward to meeting his Guardian in this world, but destiny was to decree otherwise.
His Station of Hand of the Cause of God Foreseen by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá
The story related by Dr. Varqá’ s mother tells of the portentous signing of a photograph of baby ‘Ali-Muhammad by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá while the Master was in America. This story does not appear in Mahmud’s Diary of the Master’s travels in America. A brief allusion to it is found in Barron Harper’s Lights of Fortitude. It is, of course, well-known to Dr. Varqá’s family and their circle of friends and has reached the ears of some other Bahá’ís. Dr. Varqá’s father, Valíyu’lláh Varqá, had been chosen to be included in the entourage that accompanied ‘Abdu’l-Bahá on His mission to proclaim the Bahá’í Faith during his eight month tour of North America in 1912. During this period, Valíyu’lláh served as treasurer of the Bahá’í Funds. Valíyu’lláh Varqá was not yet Chief Trustee of Húquq; that function belonged to the second Trustee appointed by Bahá’u’lláh, Hájí Amín. (The first Trustee named by Bahá’u’lláh was Amín al-Bayán, who was appointed in 1869 and served for 12 years before his accidental death in Tabriz in 1881).
Valíyu’lláh, like his father Mírzá Alí-Muhammad Varqá, the martyr-poet, and like his son after him, was also appointed a Hand of the Cause (1951). Valíyu’ lláh was appointed Chief Trustee of Huqúqu’lláh by Shoghi Effendi in 1938 to succeed Amín-i-Amín who had been appointed by‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Dr. Varqá was appointed to the same position when his father Valíyu’lláh passed on in 1955; like Dr. Varqá’s father, he was also elevated to the rank of Hand of the Cause of God in the same appointment.
One afternoon while the friends were resting after lunch, and reading the mail in the presence of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Valíyu’lláh received a photograph of his newborn son from his brother ‘Azízulláh in Tehran where little Ali-Muhammad had been born. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá noticed that Valíyu’lláh was smiling and asked him why he looked so pleased. “Beloved, Master” replied Valíyu’lláh, “I have received a letter from my brother in Tehran which contains the photograph of our newborn son. ” “Bring the picture to me,” ‘Abdu’ l-Bahá instructed. “ I would like to see it.” When the photo was presented to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, He took His pen and wrote on one of the infant’s arms “Yed” (Hand) and on the other arm “Mo’ayyed” (confirmed). ‘Abdu’l-Bahá also named the child ‘Alí-Muhammad after the baby’s martyred grandfather, the illustrious poet Mírzá ‘Alí-Muhammad whose nom de plume was Varqá (dove). Bahíyyih Khánum showed the original photograph to the Toeg family during the above mentioned visit to her home in Tehran.
Shoghi Effendi’s Priceless Gifts to the Varqá Family
During the same visit, Bahíyyih Khánum invited Jalál Toeg to retrieve a medium-sized trunk that was hidden away in a storage room that he had to access by ladder. Jalál retrieved the trunk and brought it into the living room. Dr. Varqá’ s mother opened the container and reverently displayed its contents which were neatly folded in square bundles. With a growing sense of awe, the Toeg family viewed sacred relics that had once belonged to the Báb, Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá! They consisted of various articles of clothing and accessories, including robes, slippers, a comb, some writing materials that included reed pens and ink-wells, and a turban which had been sown with gold filigree thread.
Normally, Shoghi Effendi stored such precious items in the archives, or offered them as gifts on special occasions to selected National Spiritual Assemblies. One of these gifts, offered to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Iraq, was the blood-stained shirt worn by Bahá’u’lláh as He attended the dying Purest Branch, Mírzá Mihdí. But these relics were the personal gift of the Guardian offered in gratitude to the Varqá family for four generations of remarkable service dating back to the time of the Báb.
The poet-martyr, Mírzá ‘Alí-Muhammad Varqá’s father, Hájí Mullá Mihdíy-i-Yazdí, had been a bold and eloquent teacher of the Faith of the Báb, having been taught by the Báb’s great, erudite convert, Vahíd, while the latter was openly proclaiming the coming of the Qá’ím in Yazd. The Varqá line counted three generations of Hands of the Cause, passing from father to son: the poet-martyr, Mírzá ‘Alí-Muhammad Varqá, his son Valíyu’lláh, and Dr. Ali-Muhammad; the second and third generations were both Chief Trustees of Huqúqu’lláh. This is not to forget Dr. Varqá’s uncle, the 12 year old expert teacher, Ruhúlláh, who witnessed the horrific scene of his father being rent asunder after a grisly stabbing at the hands of the enraged Hájibu’d-Dawlih, a murderous courtier and warden of the prison of Tehran, who was bent upon mindless revenge for the assassination of Násiri’d-Dín Sháh in 1896 on the eve of the king’s jubilee celebration. The young Ruhúlláh also died a martyr’s death at his father’s side, strangled in the noose of a bastinado by the bloodthirsty warden who had unsuccessfully attempted to entice the young Varqá with worldly benefits.
The Consolation of Dr. Varqá After an Encounter With Rúhíyyih Khánum
The conversation with Dr. Varqá on the Hadden estate, alluded to above, came at moment when I was recovering from what felt like a severe rebuke from ‘Amatu’l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum. I wrote “what felt like.” Of course, it wasn’t a severe rebuke; it was a rather mild one. But coming from such a distinguished member of that illustrious institution, it felt like a blow. Its impact left me, in fact, momentarily dazed and confused. It does not matter now how that misunderstanding occurred or what was said. Let’s just say that it was one of those awkward exchanges that resulted from certain expectations and the embarrassment produced by a misconceived remark I made in the confusion of the moment.
Now, I know that I am not the only Bahá’í who experienced first hand Rúhíyyih Khánum’s direct manner. And in retrospect, I can see clearly now how I set myself up for it, well-intentioned though I was. Although the memory of the incident gradually dissipated, I must admit that it troubled me for years, that is, until the time of her passing. Then, mysteriously, a welcome and sudden psychological uplift occurred; instead of feeling embarrassed, I felt comforted and strangely peaceful. After her death, what I had once taken as a rebuke became a source of comfort; what I had experienced then as thunder and lightning became a refreshing rain shower. I am at a loss to explain this mysterious transformation, but it permanently removed the least twinge of discomfort.
Dr. Varqá and I crossed paths when I was still freshly reeling from the impact of the encounter. Unhinged, I unburdened myself to this fount of compassion and generosity there and then. Dr. Varqá knew exactly what I was feeling. He had seen it before. The receptivity, the “gentle kindliness, the humane understanding, the compassion and the loving-kindness of this man” of which I wrote above became embodied in that moment in his very presence. We spoke in French; Dr. Varqá had not yet learned English. “Now, now,” he said, with a comforting gesture of the hands in that soft, mild voice of his, as he threw a cloak of kindness over me, “Remain calm. Don’t be upset. These things happen sometimes. It has happened even with my wife, you know.”
Dr. Varqá wasn’t telling tales out of school; even less, did he have any intention of detracting from the high station of the great ambassadress of the Bahá’í Faith. He was simply recognizing, with that ocean of sympathy and understanding that defined his entire spiritual being, the human frailty and humanity that defines every Bahá’ í. Then we spoke of other things.
I realize now, some 27 years later, as I recall the circumstances of that conversation, how much love and wisdom were manifested in his response. He didn’t smile or laugh. He didn’t ask me to recount the incident to determine what I had done to contribute to my own misery; he just poured out loving-kindness and understanding. I am sure that Dr. Varqá, with his great humility, thought nothing of it. He was only being himself that sunny afternoon. Rivers flow; birds fly; grass grows. Dr. Varqá breathed compassion and understanding on many Bahá’ís in his lifetime. But time has only deepened my appreciation of his genuine humanity.
The Last Time I saw Dr. Varqá: The International Teaching Centre (March 2007)
Once the International Teaching Centre was completed on the arc in 2001, the pilgrims were invited to gather evenings in the auditorium to hear the last two living Hands of the Cause, Mr. ‘Alí-Akbar Fúrutan and Dr. Varqá, or to listen to a member of the Universal House of Justice or one of the Counsellors. During the week of our pilgrimage, we were favoured with two addresses by Dr. Varqá. We took our seats in the centre of one of the front rows of the second section. I realized, of course, that the occasion was auspicious: this would be the last time I would see and hear the last living Hand of the Cause of Bahá’u’lláh.
After all the pilgrims were seated, and following a short interval, Dr. Varqá walked onto the stage steadying himself with his left hand placed on the arm of a young assistant. He settled into a green leather wing chair. A decorative plant had been placed nearby. He was impeccably dressed in a fine suit with a beautifully matching tie. This time Dr. Varqá spoke in English. (I wasn’t aware that he had learned English over the past 25 years). His voice was at times weak, making some of his remarks partially inaudible, even with amplification. Although he looked frail, I could have scarcely guessed that he was 95 years old.
One of the pilgrims in our group recorded her impressions: “Dear Dr. Varqá, so pure and sweet– so frail but luminous. He is remarkable continuing to offer this incredible service to pilgrims, to make them feel so welcome and cared for and loved. He tells us that there are 10,433 LSA’s in the world. I think of how few there would have been when he was first appointed and how much progress has been made through the steadfast efforts of those whose spirits have transcended their physical limitations. The last of the Hands of the Cause…we are so fortunate to have this precious opportunity to be in his presence, to feel his selfless love and his enormous dedication to this great faith of God. No easy retirement for him. He serves in all the ways he can to his last days.”
But the last Hand had not come out that evening to have us listen passively to just another talk, or to permit us to bask in his love and to marvel at the living example of his selflessness . He reminded us in the most courteous but direct manner of our pressing responsibilities. Another pilgrim recorded this remark: “If you leave the Holy Land without establishing your own individual plan, you are neglecting your duty.” He exhorted the friends to arise with dispatch to serve the needs of the current plan to the very best of our abilities. To him, there was nothing miraculous about success in teaching. It flowed naturally from the practice of obedience, effort, love, selflessness and devotion . The gist of his messages was this: “Friends! Love and serve Bahá’u’lláh with all your heart and soul. Love one another. Love those whom you teach. Do what is required of you and success will crown your efforts. ” Like the living example of his life, the formula for success was simplicity itself.
This last thought leads me to close with a few observations on Dr. Varqá’s particular style of spirituality. The Universal House of Justice said it best in its tribute of 23 September 2007 announcing his passing: “In the early hours of last night, revered, greatly admired, well-loved Hand of the Cause of God Dr. ‘Alí-Muhammad Varqá departed this earthly plane after a period of outstanding, consecrated service to the Blessed Beauty that spanned many decades” . “Throughout the many years of his valiant endeavor to maintain the integrity of the two offices of so high a rank to which he was simultaneously elevated, his manner was imbued with a luminous gentleness, a genuine kindliness and a natural dignity which combined to reflect a saintly personality. For these exemplary traits he will ever be remembered.”
“Well-loved.” Yes. The last Hand was both loving and loveable, and these two qualities are inseparable. Without the least hint of ostentation, Dr. Varqá drew us to himself. Just as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had taught the little child in response to a question: the ocean is great because it places itself at the lowest point on the earth and draws all things unto it. That maxim applied perfectly to ‘Alí-Muhammad Varqá. One of the Ottawa believers who met Dr. Varqá for the first time just after becoming a Bahá’í in 1970 felt the magnetic power of that still, strong ocean. He wrote the following about their first meeting: “From the moment I set my eyes on him, I was dumb-struck. I couldn’t speak at all, not even when being introduced. I felt a very strong but quiet power that emanated from him. This was something that I had never really felt before from anyone. I would say he seemed the most humble person I have ever met.”
When we look at Dr. Varqá’s family history, another lesson emerges. Strong believers produce strong believers. While this is not a universal rule, we can see that the same qualities that existed in his father, grand-father, and great-grandfather, also existed in him. When this rare spiritual and genetic inheritance work together, the forthcoming results are sometimes marvelous. Dr. Varqá remarked during one interview: “When asked why his father was named a Hand of the Cause, Dr. ‘Alí-Muhammad Varqá said: ‘Because Shoghi Effendi recognized in him this capacity, devotion and sincerity. From him there was a feeling of nothingness. He devoted his life, mind and health to the Faith. The Faith for him was above all.’” That same nothingness or selflessness that Shoghi Effendi saw in the father was also visible in the son. The same degree of consecration existed in both. The Faith was their all, just as it should be for every faithful believer.
Dr. Varqá’s child-like purity of heart, innocence and simplicity should not be confused, of course, with a lack of intellectual sophistication. He earned a doctorate in hydraulics and irrigation from the Sorbonne in Paris in 1950 and he taught physical geography and geomorphology at Tehran University. His motivation in studying and teaching these subjects was to contribute to the modernization and economic development of Iran, but he was forced to leave his country after the Islamic revolution of 1979; he sought refuge in Canada.
Penned shortly before his passing, his last message as Chief Trustee was addressed to the participants of the Institutional Conference on the Right of God, held in Surrey, British Columbia from September 28-30, 2007. It contained the following mature reflection: “The observance of a law based on love rather than fear of retribution is unique in religious history and is a reflection of the stage of maturity that is expected of humanity in this era, when technological and scientific advances are continually improving material wellbeing. However, it is only when the means of material progress are anchored in a firm spiritual foundation that the social and economic welfare of mankind can be advanced.”
The keynote of his life was simplicity–divine simplicity–which is the concomitant of humility. He taught us, through the power of living example, and without ever saying so, that the way to God, and the path to success, do not lie in complexity. For complexity is only a burden and a hindrance. We shall honour him best by learning to practice that submissiveness to the Divine Will that illuminated his radiant soul, that submissiveness in action that will propel the Bahá’í community ever closer to winning its most cherished prize.