A couple of years before I had determined to devote my scholarly endeavors to Bahá’í studies, I had come across in The American Bahá’í (the monthly American Bahá’í news) a request from the Bahá’í Publishing Committee for anyone interested in writing books for children and youth to submit a proposal. After having taught my own children and other children youth, I immediately thought of two proposals that I felt were greatly needed. The first was a history of the Bahá’í Faith written in chronological order and in language that a youth could understand, but a work that would also be valuable to adults since there was no simple narrative of the life of Bahá’u’lláh. The second was a book that provided discussion of the central theological and philosophical questions written in a memorable and accessible language—a sort of Some Answered Questions for youth and non-academic adults.
I decided to tackle the life of Bahá’u’lláh first, which, to my surprise, required two years of research because at the time, there was no chronological history of the life of Bahá’u’lláh in English—Balyuzi’s Bahá’u’lláh The King of Glory had not been written, nor had Adib Taherzadeh completed his four-volume work The Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh. The value of the research for me personally has lasted a lifetime. By having to make outlines and piece together the chronology from all manner of sources, I learned Bahá’í history in a way I might never have done otherwise.
The main challenge of the work was that I could not have Bahá’u’lláh and the other historical figures in the work do or say anything for which I did not have an authoritative source. Therefore, from my study of literature—particularly Chaucer—I determined that the best way of accomplishing a continuous narrative was to link the parts together with what is called a “framing device”—an overarching story that has its own internal plot and logic.
That frame story became the fictional story a young Bahá’í in `Akká around the time of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s trip to America. After an evocative and somewhat disturbing dream, Ali becomes determined to learn about the religion he has been taught, but which he understands only in bits and pieces. In other words, like every Bahá’í youth who is raised in a Bahá’í family, he faced the challenge of making the Bahá’í Faith his own, rather than simply accepting what he has been told.
This approach to the narrative derived from my having talked to Bahá’í youth at summer schools who shared their feeling of loss or deprivation at not having had the joy some of their parents had found in discovering the Bahá’í Faith for themselves. My response to them was to assure them that they would over the course of their lives be challenged to make the Faith their own, and that they would eventually discover that having been raised in a Bahá’í home and having had the values of the Faith instilled in them from the beginning would far outweigh the experience of discovery. As I tried to explain to them, like Ali, their quest to make the Faith their personal path in life would be equally exciting.
The other challenge of constructing this work was to determine an appropriate setting, both in time and place. I felt that a contemporary setting would not work because there is no single place or time frame that would have a universal appeal, and I wanted the work to be appropriate to any youth (or adult) in any country and at any time. I thus chose to have Ali live in `Akká at the time when ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was visiting the West so that the history lesson would be twofold—they would learn about ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and the challenges the believers faced at that final stage of the Heroic Age of the Faith.
For me, the wisdom in these choices has been the fact that this book is still being published forty years later, has gone through four editions in English, and has thus far been translated into Spanish, German, and Chinese. I have also had the good fortune of meeting parents who themselves were taught the history of the Faith through this book and who are now using the same book to teach their own children.
There is one final bit of fortuitous irony about the writing of this book I feel worthy sharing, especially for anyone faced with the challenges of trying to discover their place in serving the Bahá’í Faith. I believe it was in 1970 that I had written to the Publishing Committee with my proposal about these two books. But I did not hear back, and had begun work on other projects. Then, in late 1971, I determined that I desperately needed to go on pilgrimage, and after receiving permission, I went in December of 1972.
As a lover of history and visiting historical landmarks, the pilgrimage was a living-changing experience in a multitude of ways, some of which I incorporated into these two books. Upon my return, I felt inspired to contact by phone the secretary of the Publishing Committee to find out why I had never heard anything. The response was that they had sent me an enthusiastic approval to proceed full steam ahead with both projects, but for some reason, I had never received the notice.
The point is that had I received the approval, I probably would not have gone on pilgrimage, and I doubt I would have had the idea to have the narratives set in `Akká and its environs. I most certainly would not have had the knowledge of the early history of the Faith that I acquired on that journey as I visited the very sites that become so crucial in both stories. Of course, needless to say such propitious turns and unexpected guidance is almost inevitable in the life of virtually every Bahá’í I have known—it’s one of the many bounties of becoming attuned to path you believe God has chosen for you to follow.