Baha'i Scholar Mírzá Abu'l-Fadl (1844-1914)
Generally, when Bahá'í teachers in the early days of the Faith conversed with people about the Cause, they would employ three main methods of proving the authenticity of the claims of Bahá'u'lláh. One was based on rational and intellectual proofs, another on the contents and prophecies of the Holy Books of past dispensations, and the third, which was employed only in certain cases, used the arguments of the other party to prove the case. This last method, which is not generally familiar to Westerners, is very interesting indeed. It was used only in cases when the individual had no intention of finding the truth but was intent upon conducting and winning an argument.
In order to appreciate the first of these, which took place between himself and the Rev. Dr Robert Bruce, a British missionary in Isfahán, it is helpful to know that Mírzá Abu'l-Fadl chose an unconventional method of countering this missionary, who was using his political influence and proudly boasting of his superior upbringing and education. It should be noted that Prince Zillu's-Sultán, the Governor of Isfahán, was under the influence of the British government whose support was vital in his ambitious plans. Under these circumstances it is natural that any British subject, and especially a high-ranking figure such as the Rev. Bruce, should be a highly influential figure in Isfahán.
A certain believer arranged the meeting between Rev. Bruce and Mírzá Abu'l-Fadl at a time when the people of Isfahán were ravaged by a famine, and poverty loomed over the city. The following is a summary of the unusual dialogue between the two, related by the late 'Ináyatu'lláh Suhráb, a devoted believer and a noteworthy Bahá'í teacher himself. The chronicler does not claim to have recorded the exact words that were exchanged, as his source of information was a verbal account. Nevertheless, it helps to portray what transpired at this unconventional encounter between one who wielded political and financial influence and one who was without either. After some preliminary discussions the following exchange took place:
Mírzá Abu'l-Fadl: Would it be possible for you please to tell me the extent of the funds involved in your work.
Rev. Bruce: So far I have donated about half a million túmáns for famine relief, and if it was necessary I could provide several times this amount.
Mírzá Abu'l-Fadl: What sort of political influence do you command?
Rev. Bruce: Well, my political power is such that should the fanatical Muslims close my church, I could direct the Governor of Isfahán, who is a son of the monarch, to open it with his own hands.
Mírzá Abu'l-Fadl: What are your educational qualifications?
Rev. Bruce: I am a graduate of a university and have grown up and lived in Britain which is foremost among the civilized countries of the world. From this you may guess the extent of my education and knowledge.
Mírzá Abu'l-Fadl: Having been richly endowed with such influence and knowledge, how many souls have you been able to convert to Christianity since you have been in Isfahán?
Rev. Bruce: About thirty.
Mírzá Abu'l-Fadl: of these how many, do you think, are steadfast in their Christian faith and sincerely believe in it?
Rev. Bruce (after a brief pause, thinking): I am certain about ten to fifteen of them are sincere in their faith.
Mírzá Abu'l-Fadl: of these ten to fifteen, how many will remain steadfast to the end and are willing to give their lives in the face of persecution and martyrdom?
Rev. Bruce (after some pause): Perhaps two or three of them will remain steadfast till the end.
Mírzá Abu'l-Fadl: If you permit me, I will now recount my position for you. Financially, I have no assets whatsoever. At times I even have nothing to subsist on. Sometimes my friends, who are also poor, insist on offering me a meal. My position with regard to political influence is as follows. Should people suspect that I am a Bahá'í they would undoubtedly put me to death in public, and those committing this crime would become the recipients of honours from the government. As to my knowledge, it is true that I have learnt religious subjects as are currently taught in Islámic schools. I am, nevertheless, born in and a product of a society steeped in ignorance and enveloped in darkness.
In spite of all these shortcomings, I have spoken to about one hundred people since my arrival in this city a month ago. Twenty-four souls among them have recognized the truth of this Faith and embraced it with such devotion and fervour that every one of them is ready to lay down his life in the path of God, as many other Bahá'ís have already done. Now, I want you to be fair in your judgement. Who, in this day, is assisted by the Holy Spirit, you or I?
The Reverend Dr Bruce had never expected that the dialogue conducted by Mírzá Abu'l-Fadl would come so swiftly to an end and that he would find himself in such disarray. Discomfited, he asked for the meeting to be adjourned, and promised to continue the discussion at a later date.