REMEMBERING FARZAM ARBAB
27 October 1941 – 25 September 2020
This brief article about Dr. Farzam Arbab is based on my personal connection, encounters, and recollections. Dr. Arbab whom I would address as Farzam is a cousin of mine through his mother. This is a tribute to his devoted and distinguished services to the Cause of God. He does not need an introduction as he is a familiar personality that served the Faith vigilantly and devotedly at all levels of Bahá’í institutions, from Spiritual Assemblies to the Board of Counsellors, the International Teaching Centre, and finally the Universal House of Justice, the Supreme Body of the Bahá’í Faith. Many eloquent tributes have already been written in his honor and this is my tribute to a man whom I adored and from whom I had benefited learning many things. I write this article from my perspective for the sake of preservation of those precious memories for posterity. I wish to preserve some of the untold stories that I have personally heard or experienced. I decided to write this article however inadequate it may be.
Farzam, was one who was destined to make amazing strides in attracting and leading a great number of people to the vision of Bahá’u’lláh. Farzam was born into a Bahá’í family in Iran. Farzam’s father Ruhi Arbab served on the Local Spiritual Assembly of Tehran and later as the Secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly. When my parents decided to go as homefront pioneering to a remote town, he commended their decision and gave all the encouragement.
My initial memory of Farzam goes back to our early childhood when we played, prayed, and argued at the age of about seven. He was ahead of me in everything we did. Simply said, he had a rare God-given gift. He is my second cousin and my junior by about a month. In 1953, when the beloved Guardian launched the Global Ten-Year Crusade and encouraged the Persian believers to get out of big cities and pioneer to towns and villages across the country, my family moved from Tehran to a designated homefront pioneering goal. At the suggestion of the National Pioneering Committee, our family settled in Qasr-i-Shirin, a small Kurdish town at the border of Iran and Iraq whose population was mostly engaged in the business of opium and hard drugs, smuggling and trafficking on both sides of the Iran and Iraq border. The kind of life and the relations with people that we had to make as Bahá’ís were unimaginably hard and challenging.
Whenever I visited Farzam and his little sister Halleh in their home in Tehran, I could see Farzam’s shelves and table were full of all kinds of books that his parents provided. Often, Farzam, couldn’t put down a book till he finished reading it. He was a fast reader and his written and spoken English ability was far better than most of his peers. His father was the senior manager of a firm and his mother was a literary figure, a poet and a skilled writer. She has written numerous articles and a book on the contemporary history of the development of the Faith in Iran. One of her poems is a description of the shining glare of the eyes of Shoghi Effendi that pierced the hearts of his audience. Farzam’s great grandfather Mirza Reihan together with four other believers in Kashan were blessed to have the honor of receiving a tablet from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá which encouraged them to teach the Faith. My father used to tell us that his older brother Mirza Shaban, Farzam’s grandfather, who could only read and write basic Farsi, when he went on pilgrimage, he asked the beloved Guardian to bless his children to have good education and the Guardian assured him of his prayer and advised him to continue teaching the Faith in order to attract the divine assistance and that was what he did.
I had known Dr. Farzam Arbab as a very brilliant student. His father Ruhi Arbab and his mother Frough exerted a great influence on his spiritual and academic education. And while still a student, he was actively involved in Bahá’í activities and acquired a good spiritual insight of the Bahá’í Writings while simultaneously serving the Faith first in Iran and later in the United States of America. As I can recall Farzam was actively engaged in serving the Faith both within the Bahá’í community and in the community at large from the young age. Later on, I was amazed and gratified to know of his distinguished achievements as a teacher, trainer, writer, presenter, and physicist. I never aspired to become like him because I knew I had to the best of who I am. Nevertheless, I had a strong desire to learn from him and the way of his thinking.
Dr. Arbab has an excellent academic record, not surprising given his brilliant mind. He completed his high school education at the Alborz School in Tehran. After his graduation, he went to the United States to further his education. By the time he went to the United States I was already pioneering in Laos to work with tribal populations at the grassroots level. That was how Farzam and I lost direct contact and did not meet for three decades. But whenever I did have the bounty of being with Farzam in the same room during his travels and listening to his words, I felt he was like a mighty river that nurtured millions of trees and I was a drop that could merge and disappear in the river that flowed into the sea of the Cause of God.
In the United States he studied at Amherst College in Massachusetts where he graduated with an honors degree in the field of physics in 1964. While living in Berkley he married Laurie Elmlund on 25 June, 1966, and served on the Local Spiritual Assembly of Berkeley as its Chairman. At the University of California, he gained his Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in elementary particle physics in 1968. The Amherst College in Massachusetts awarded an honorary doctorate in science in 1989.
Dr. Arbab pioneered to Colombia in 1970 and that was a new phase in his career and as a servant of Bahá’u’lláh. He first arrived as a visiting professor to the Universidad del Valle in Columbia in 1970. While serving in the Development Program of the Rockefeller Foundation, Farzam was instrumental in strengthening its Physics Department. In 1970, he was elected to the National Spiritual Assembly of Colombia. In 1972, he spoke at the Dedication of the Panama Temple. In 1974, Arbab assisted in founding the Foundation for the Application and Teaching of the Sciences (FUNDAEC), and served as its inaugural president from 1974 to 1988. This foundation is a Bahá’í inspired non-profit, non-governmental organization that focused on training and development in the rural areas of Colombia and other countries in Latin America.
His pioneering to Colombia in 1970 was probably the best thing where he was instrumental in initiating and developing the Ruhi Institute courses and finally to work at the Bahá’í World Centre where he worked tirelessly and did not rest until his last breath.
In 1975, he was serving on the National Teaching Committee of Colombia apart from serving on the National Spiritual Assembly. In 1976, he was involved in the development of the Ruhi Institute, which was founded in the same year. The Ruhi Institute was highly instrumental in consolidating the teaching work in Colombia.
In 1980, the Universal House of Justice appointed Dr. Farzam Arbab on the Continental Board for the Americas as a Counsellor for a five year term. He also served as a Trustee of the Continental Fund. He was appointed for a second term as Counsellor in 1985. While serving his second term he was appointed to the International Teaching Centre in 1988. He then moved to Haifa, Israel, to serve on that August institution for a five-year term. While serving on the International Teaching Centre, he represented the Faith at several meetings across the globe. In 1993, Arbab was elected to the Universal House of Justice and he was subsequently re-elected in 1998, 2003, and 2008. In 2000, his beloved wife Laurie passed away. He remarried in 2002 to Sona Farid.
In November 2012, Farzam announced his desire to retire from the Universal House of Justice at the end of his term the following year. Upon completing his services in the Supreme Body in 2013, he and Sona settled in San Diego in the United States. Yet he kept travelling places making several trips to Colombia.
I had known Farzam as a great speaker delivering talks at several international forums. He had a vast and wide knowledge on the Faith and had the great ability to move the hearts of the listeners. Many of his soul-stirring talks have been recorded and preserved.
The breadth of his numerous articles and presentations on many subjects of human endeavor, the details of which are beyond the limited space of this short article, is phenomenal. Reading his articles and listening to his presentations on spiritual, social and educational topics such as the understanding of the conceptual framework of action made me think deeper. By bringing to focus the practical application of principles fundamental to social existence such as the oneness of humanity, the equality of men and women, the imperative of justice, the harmonious interaction of science and religion, I have learned and appreciated the systematic application of these principles with joy and gratitude. In addition, his analysis and articulation of such topics as the educational requirements that must characterize knowledge and understanding, the essential development of attitudes, qualities, skills, capabilities, and praiseworthy habits that are essential to the spiritual empowerment of junior youth, and the training of their animators have become my guiding tool of action.
Dr Arbab and his wife, accompanied by some members of the National Spiritual Assembly of Vietnam at a High School in Hanoi in 2000. (Photo courtesy: Thanh Binh)
Farzam had an incredible degree of reliance on the power of divine assistance — that God was omnipotent and that the impossible was possible when we turn to God sincerely meditate and tap into the wellsprings of His teachings and guidance. To give an example, while having a lunch break during a regional conference of the Counsellors and Auxiliary Board members in Taiwan in the 1980s where he represented the International Teaching Centre, he related his personal story of how God with His omnipotent Will modifies our plans and changes the course of our lives. He said that he had been pleased with the Bahá’í services he was engaged in and was happy and satisfied with his job and activities as a physicist in the United States when the Hand of the Cause of God Dr. Rahmatu’lláh Muhájir suggested going pioneering to Colombia, a country with a reputation for a high crime rate, corruption, and narcotics traffic. Realizing the power of contrasting conditions that enable the beautiful lotus to grow from the stagnant and muddy water, he thought there must be a good reason for pioneering to Colombia. Since he had great respect for the Hand of the Cause and knew that he was inspired, decided to give a year of service, took a sabbatical leave, and went to Colombia. This move totally changed the course of his life and his commitment to serving the Cause. By the end of the year, he had become so involved in the education and training of youth and in the process of community building that he saw no good reason for returning to the United States. He said that this is how he learned to submit his affairs to the Will of God. Thus, guided by divine assistance, Colombia became a center of learning for the training of the first tutors and promoters of the Ruhi Institute from all around the world.
In a meeting of Farzam with pioneers-tutors in the late 1990’s in Beijing someone asked about why and how the idea of the Ruhi Institute courses emerged since there were already numerous classes of learning the Bahá’í Writings tutored by knowledgeable believers in operation and were well attended?
Farzam responded to the question saying that: “A need was felt for the sustainable and systematic method of development of the Faith that was primarily attainable through the process of the new culture of learning and the spiritual empowerment of both; the individual and the community, the two of the three protagonists of change. The process of learning and spiritual empowerment was essential for the creation of thousands of tutors to learn to become the protagonists of their own development and development of others. This achievement was integral to address the urgent demands of spiritual nurturing of millions and their community development through the systematic learning and application of the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh. And Colombia had the environment of a collaborative team for the development of the Ruhi courses and some other Bahá’í inspired materials which eventually evolved to a teaching institute. The sequences of courses were designed to direct the minds to capacity building of the individual, community life and to realizing the essential coherence of spiritual and material education, and the community building in which the individual, family, and society can work together for progress. This explanation was enlightening. I realized the logic and value of the Ruhi courses that appear simple in the outset but profound in its objectives especially when the idea of “Outward Looking” to the society at large had become the reality for the Bahá’í community to pursue.”
In another meeting the question about the functions of the Office of Social and Economic Development (OSED) and ways that individuals could support its programs. I remember each time that Farzam came to China he had a plan of action that sometimes he shared it with us. When he visited Beijing, he usually stayed with his other second cousin Shidvash and her husband Counsellor Bijan Farid. My wife Giti and I, lived in Jilin Changchun, an extreme northern city, close to Mongolia, and tried hard not to miss the opportunity of meeting Farzam when he came. When we did meet, he often related to us relevant and fascinating stories of the progress in community building and in the transformation of friends that was miraculously taking place in parts of the world.
In China. L-R: Dr. Arbab, Dr. Firaydun, and Mrs. Giti Mithaq.
Farzam once told a humorous story about a Ruhi learner’s attitude towards praying and devotional gatherings that he had encountered. He related what a learner had said in the following words: “At first I did not feel comfortable with hearing and using the word ‘God’ because I didn’t believe in God, but I liked the praying atmosphere and the contents of prayers. I liked to pray but prayed by deleting the word ‘God’ from the prayers. And when I deleted God from the prayer it did not make sense because of the missing pronoun. And since I could not find any other pronoun to replace ‘God’ in the sentence, I decided to replace it with ‘Nothing’ and pray. This didn’t work either. In fact, my version of prayer looked funny when it read ‘O my nothing, O my nothing’ instead of reading O my God, O my God.’ Therefore, when I realized that no other word could replace God, it must be the ‘God’ itself. And I realized that saying the prayer in its original form was quite alright and I accepted that the concept of God is beyond human comprehension.”
Farzam was very keen on the progress of the Faith and followed it in detail. He said that: “Every small step of progress was a platform for greater commitment and achievement. For instance, on each visit to a particular country, he met with individuals and groups of pioneers and sought the details of their work with the learners in the Institute process. Farzam was very meticulous and examined every detail for its possibility to lead to a clearer understanding of the process, of its application or its benefit. Talking about the power of the Words of God; Farzam mentioned that the sequences of courses were designed to produce a deep understanding of the revelation of Bahá’u’lláh and the realization of the essential coherence of the spiritual and material life of the individual and society. He emphasized that it was the process of understanding the Words of God would ultimately leads to one’s spiritual transformation and the ownership of the Faith.”
When meeting with a group of us in Beijing in the year 2000, he asked each one of us if there were exciting instances or challenges to share from our experience with study circles. Each person related important points of progress and issues that they were encountering with learners in their study circles. I enjoyed the discussion about learning. Then my turn came to speak. Honestly, I hadn’t prepared anything and didn’t know what to say. Farzam saw my silence, turned to me, and asked how were our (Giti’s and my) study circles proceeding. The question gave me the courage to simply say what we were doing. I recounted that we started each session with some prayers for divine assistance. Then we would go around and each person would give a brief account of what they had experienced during the week since the last session of the study circle and usually, they would come up with incredible stories. This was because, from the beginning, we had encouraged the participants to talk about their learnings with their friends, and even with their colleagues and relatives. We gradually found that this practice had several benefits.
As I paused to search for words to continue, Farzam came to my rescue and began analyzing and explaining the benefits of this approach and said that this way was conducive to 1) helping the learners better remember the items of their learning by reviewing and talking about them with others; 2) attracting others to come and join the study circles; 3) helping the learners gain more confidence in teaching and to the point where they could form and tutor their own groups after completing the study of Ruhi Books 1-4. In this way new generations of learners could be tutored by local friends in their own language.
This was naturally preferable because it helped the learners to take ownership of their learning. When we had finished sharing the stories of our study circles, Farzam responded with a smile of approval for the approach that Giti and I had used.
In 2003, I visited Iran for one month with the direction and permission of the Universal House of Justice. It was my first visit in twenty-six and half years due to the restriction factors. My last visit to Iran was in 1977. The visit with the Grace of God was quite exciting and rewarding because in addition to pilgrimage to a number of holy places that included: House of Bahá’u’lláh in Tehran (from outside), the site of the Siyáh-Chal, the Sabz-i-Maidan in Bazar-i-Tehran where the followers of the Báb were martyred, the mosque of Zaid in Bazar-i-Tehran where the remains of the Báb was kept, the house of the Kalantar where Tahirih was confined, the house of Bahá’u’lláh in Takor-Mazandaran, the garden of Badast where Bahá’u’lláh held the Conference of Badasht, the site of the House of the Báb in Shiraz, the ruins of the House of Tahirih Quratu’l-Ayn in Qazvin, the Fort of Tabarsi in Mazandaran where Mullah Husayn was buried, the mosque in Amol where Bahá’u’lláh was bastinadoed, the house of Vahid in Saari, Sabze Maidan, the site of the martyrdom of Qudus and the massacre of the believers of the Bab in Babolsar, the ruin of the mosque where several companions of Mullá Husayn were shot down from the minaret and killed till they finished the public prayer, Maidan Zanjan the site of the martyrdom of Jinabi Hujat in Zanjan. In addition I had the bounty meeting many believers in various communities in small and large gatherings including the amazing 19 Day Feasts of the new believers. Personally taken pictures of most of the above events are available in case is required.
After Iran I went to Istanbul where my wife Giti joined me, coming from her family visit in England and we proceeded to Holy Land for short pilgrimage and had the bounty of meeting some members of the Universal House of Justice and related the account of my visit to Iran in writing and verbally. Farzam sent a message to our hotel and came with his wife Sona and picked us up for lunch in a restaurant where we had a good two and half hours of eating and chatting on many relevant topics and future activities that included the importance of not just being content and suffice with the progress we make in deepening and working with students and adults in our neighborhoods important as they are but to strengthening and maintain cordial relationship with the local authorities and the prominent people in the clusters we were developing. I think this indicates that Farzam had a clear vision of how communities must progress in balance in all dimensions. He particularly emphasized on sharing the Bahá’í perspectives on the practical applications of the harmony of science and religion and was pleased with some pioneers’ enrolments in a university in Beijing in establishing the circle of The Academy of Science and Ethics that was proceeding with regular meetings and activates.
I wish to share a story that is a bit humorous. Once Farzam visited us in Beijing, I think it was some time in 2003, where he was the guest at Shidvash and Counsellor Bijan Farid’s. Shidvash invited us to a family dinner in their apartment where she cooked nice Persian dishes. I am not going to mention all the funny and joyful jokes and chats that we shared with laughter that night but just to relate an instance of how much humorous Farzam was. When all the delicious dishes were set on the table before us we did not start until the Persian rice known as ‘plow’ with its caramelized Tahdig merged with crispy potato slices was brought in and placed on the middle of the table. Shidvash asked Farzam to say a few words. Farzam said; well, look at that that exotic caramelized mouth-watering Tahdig. “It covers the rice with meaning”. We all burst to laugh because it rhymed with; “The kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of man … it clotheth the words with meaning …” We realized that the tasks in the World Centre are quite serious and busy, there might seldom be a chance for humor and laughter but it could come to surface in rear occasions such as in family gatherings and traveling.
Farzam was not satisfied with just the progress of study circles alone. He mentioned that the teaching committee in Macau has prepared the needed materials for the training of youth animators to engage in releasing the spiritual and physical energies of the junior youth in their contributions of building a better world.
I had the opportunity of meeting Farzam several times in Haifa where the development of the Faith were discussed and one of those was the bounty of accompanying the friends from a country that did not have much freedom to undertake pilgrimage. The Universal House of Justice had created a separate special program in which believers from that country could visit the Holy Land for seven days pilgrimage. In this program, the friends, who had finished studying the Ruhi courses up to book seven and were engaged in at least one of the core activities, were invited to come for seven days of pilgrimage accompanied by their tutors. My wife Giti and I had the bounty of accompanying four groups of ten to fifteen members each time for pilgrimages to Haifa. We carried out this task in four separate years between 2008 and 2016. Each pilgrimage was a unique and unforgettable spiritual journey, especially for those friends who for the first time were witnessing the very scenes of many historical stories that they had studied in Ruhi Book 4. The degree of reverence, humility, devotion and homage that was shown in prostration at the Holy Shrines and the Great Prison of Bahá’u’lláh in Akka was beyond description. It was also a great pleasure and privilege to meet the members of the Universal House of Justice, the International Teaching Centre and some of the staff members on every pilgrimage. During these specially arranged pilgrimages, on each visit, five different members of the House of Justice would officially meet with us on separate occasions except Farzam that met with us on a separate time and place. On the first day of each visit a House member would meet with us in the pilgrim-house and then accompany us to the Shrine of the Báb and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to recite the Tablets of Visitation. We were again accompanied by a House member on the last farewell day to visit the Holy Shrines. On two other days in Haifa and Akka a House member would meet with us for about two hours in the pilgrim-house in Akka. We also enjoyed a dinner night at the home of one of the House members on every pilgrimage. For one of these dinners, we were at the home of Mr. Steven Hall. Farzam decided to join us in that dinner as well to honor those pilgrims despite his busy schedule. It was a great joy for me to seeing him giving time and attention to those friends in the sacred environs of the World Centre and listen to his views. After the dinner, he spoke for about an hour relating important and interesting stories regarding the devoted contributions made and exemplary services rendered by the friends in that underprivileged country for the progress of the Faith in that vast and magical land, contributions and services that had brought much joy to the heart of the Universal House of Justice. Following his talk, the questions those friends asked Farzam and on the subsequent discussions reflected a much deeper understanding of the purpose and the significance of the 19-Day Spiritual Gatherings.
My recollections of Farzam would not be complete if I do not mention of the unique qualities I observed in him. Farazam had a unique talent for getting a deep understanding of the Holy Writings. He would go word by word in explaining the Holy Writings, apart from explaining the background and context in which those Holy Writings were revealed. The listener too would be able to understand the Holy Writings in the right context. Perhaps that could be the reason he was able to translate what he had read into practical actions. It was this conceiving of the Holy Writings in the right context that, to my opinion had enabled Farzam to serve the Cause effectively and the way the Faith has to be served. The one area that I did not understand well and which he enlightened me so well the principle of the harmony of science and religion. In talking about the balance between science and religion Farzam even warned me so many years ago about the acute danger playing with nature that would ultimately harm the and end up in global warming.
Farzam always wanted to do something for the Cause. He was not a believer in resting upon laurels or taking break from service to the Cause. Each moment was important for him and he was on the lookout for serving and would create some areas of service. His love and compassion for fellow humans was sincere and genuine. He had a rare talent in giving strength to the downtrodden believers, and empowering others, especially the youths in arising to serve the Cause. He used the wealth of knowledge on the Faith and the Holy writings to awaken the minds of the believers. His words were soft as milk, and yet had penetrating influence.
It was a great loss that Farzam took his departure sooner than expected and deprived us of the joy of his loving accompaniment, uniqueness, and teaching support. The passing of this devoted and intelligent servant of the Cause was the greatest loss of my life. I still wonder when the vacuum of his absence will be filled. May God bless his radiant soul roaming in the heights of the Abhá Kingdom. To better know who Farzam Arbab really was, let it suffice to reflect on a small segment of the tribute of the Universal House of Justice, written at his passing. He passed away on 25 September 2020, in San Diego and was buried at Greenwood Memorial Park, San Diego, San Diego County, California, USA.
On 26 September 2020 the Supreme Body sent out this message:
“With grief-stricken hearts we mourn the sudden passing of our former colleague, our dearly loved brother Farzam Arbab, news of which has brought us fresh sorrow. His brilliant mind, loving heart, and vibrant spirit were ever turned towards the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh, seeking to draw from it insights that, through the process of education, could build spiritual and intellectual capacity within entire populations. Born in Iran, he studied in the United States before settling in Colombia as a pioneer. His outstanding gifts fitted him, it seemed, for a distinguished career in the physical sciences—but Providence had determined otherwise. His rigorous scientific training was instead applied to the work of the Faith. He recognized that the verities contained in the Bahá’í writings concerning spiritual and social transformation and the entry into the Faith of the masses of humanity demanded persistent effort to learn how to bring them about; the investment of his whole being in this great enterprise was complete and constant. Throughout his time as a member of the National Spiritual Assembly of Colombia, as a Continental Counsellor, as a member of the International Teaching Centre, and finally as a member of the Universal House of Justice for two decades from 1993, at age 71 to 2013, his unshakeable belief in the capacity of all of God’s children, especially of young people, was the hallmark of his service to the Cause. Always insightful, always discerning, always attuned to spiritual reality, this man of exceptional vision lived a life shaped by the harmony between scientific truth and true religion.
To Sona, his beloved wife, and to Paul, his cherished son, as well as to other family members, we extend our heartfelt condolences at this unexpected loss. We supplicate in the Sacred Shrines for the progress of his illumined soul as it commences its journey into the eternal realms of God. May it be lovingly welcomed to its heavenly home. All Bahá’í communities are urged to arrange memorials, as circumstances permit, including in all Houses of Worship, to mark the passing of much-loved, illustrious Farzam Arbab.”
-The Universal House of Justice
Dr. Firaydun Mithaq
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The author Dr. Firaydun Mithaq (Mithaqiyan)is a Bahá’í pioneer to Laos South East Asia since 1962. Residing in Thailand today, Dr. Firaydun Mithaq was 20 years old when he pioneered to Laos in 1962, thus catching up with the last year of the Ten Year Crusade Plan. Coming from the fifth generation of Bahá’ís on his father’s side and the fourth generation from his mother’s side, he was raised in an illustrious Bahá’í family. From the age of two to fifteen, he grew up in home-front pioneering locations among the Kurd populations with his four siblings. He spent the first seven years of pioneering among the tribal masses of spirit worshipers in the hills, mountains, and urban and rural Buddhist communities in Laos. Firaydun witnessed mass teaching in these areas in 1963, from a single village of forty-five tribal people to about one hundred thousand believers in 1973. In 1973, he was appointed to serve on the Continental Board of Counsellors in South East Asia. From 1975 to 2017 he and his family pioneered in Hong Kong, South Korea, China, and Thailand. From 1987 to 1992 he lived in the aboriginal communities in Northwest Australia such as Carnarvon, Onslow, Karratha, Roburn, Port headland, Brume, and Derby, and engaged in travel teaching and community building activities. He currently lives with his wife Giti in Thailand. His pioneering life was highly inspired by the direct love and guidance of the Hand of the Cause of God Dr. Rahmatu’lláh Muhájir.
28 February 2023
You may leave your comments at: email@example.com