Born Mary Maxwell in Montreal, Amatu’l-Bahá Ruhiyyih Khanum’s life spanned almost the entire 20th century. To her husband, Shoghi Effendi, she was his “helpmate”, “shield” and “tireless collaborator in the arduous tasks I shoulder.” This portrait was written by Violette Nakhjavani.
Mary Sutherland Maxwell was born on 8 August 1910 in the Hahnemann Hospital, later known as The Fifth Avenue Hospital, in New York City. She was the only child of May Bolles, one of the foremost disciples of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and Sutherland Maxwell, a distinguished Canadian architect, whose home in Montreal had long been known as a place of culture and spiritual vitality. When Mary was just seven months old, in March 1911, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote a Tablet to her mother, saying, “In the garden of existence a rose hath bloomed with the utmost freshness, fragrance and beauty. Educate her according to the divine teachings so that she may grow up to be a real Bahá’í and strive with all thy heart, that she may receive the Holy Spirit.” May took these injunctions to heart, striving to educate her precious, God-given daughter according to the divine teachings.
She had a full, free and happy childhood. Her only sorrows at this time, which she would speak of until late in life, were the periods of separation from her beloved mother. May Maxwell was a devoted and dedicated servant of the Cause, a member of several Bahá’í administrative bodies, as well as one of the star teachers of the Faith. She suffered greatly from the extreme cold of Montreal and her ill health would often keep her away from her home for two or more months at a time. She would go to New York or Wilmette to attend meetings, would become ill and then could not return home for several weeks. The physical attachment and spiritual kinship that connected mother and daughter was singular and strong. Rúhíyyih Khánum often said, “If Bahá’ís believed in such things as ‘soul mates’, my mother and I would be like that.”
‘Abdu’l-Bahá visited the Maxwell home for three days during the fall of 1912, when Mary was two years old. There is an especially touching story about this visit, told by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá Himself to His companions and recorded in the memoirs of A. A. Nakhjavani. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá told them: “Today I was resting on the chaise longue in my bedroom and the door opened. The little girl came in to me and pushed my eyelids up with her small finger and said, ‘Wake up, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá!’ I took her in my arms and placed her head on my chest and we both had a good sleep.” When Rúhíyyih Khánum repeated this story in later years she used to say that once when her mother complained to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá that she was naughty, the Master had said,
“Leave her alone. She is the essence of sweetness.”
The traditional educational methods of the time tended to be rigid and authoritarian, narrow-minded and dictatorial, and May was concerned to provide her daughter with the “freedom” which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had prescribed. For Mary’s early training, May established the first Montessori school in Canada in the Maxwell home. Mary also had a year of schooling in Montreal, a few months in Chevy Chase Country Day School in Maryland, another year in Weston High School in Montreal, and was tutored at home by governesses and private teachers. Later she became a part-time student at McGill University.
Despite these inconsistencies of education she was to become a well-read and knowledgeable person, with a consuming interest in a variety of subjects. Her thirst for acquiring knowledge was insatiable and throughout her life she clipped articles from the daily papers which caught her attention because they reflected Bahá’í themes or subjects of particular interest to her. And however arbitrary and independent may have been her formal intellectual education, there are clear indications that her spiritual training was pursued with rigour and unrelenting discipline. It was a training whose hallmark was love and whose main characteristic was obedience to the Covenant.
As the years of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s ministry were drawing to a close with WWI, and as a precursor to His Will and Testament, He sent the Tablets of the Divine Plan to the Bahá’í s of the West. Nine young girls were chosen to draw aside the curtains covering the original handwritten Tablets of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Mary Maxwell and her best childhood friend, Elizabeth Coristine of Montreal, were privileged to unveil the first and second of these Tablets for Canada in a tableau vivant at the Hotel McAlpin in New York on 29 April 1919. It was shortly before Mary’s ninth birthday and the end of the Heroic Age of the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh.
The passing of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, in November 1921, devastated the whole Bahá’í community. May Maxwell was so shattered and shaken in body and soul that she may have become a permanent invalid had not Mr. Maxwell convinced her to visit the Shrines in the Holy Land and meet the Guardian face to face. He thought Mary should go with her. They set sail from New York for the Holy Land, on 29 April 1923. This first pilgrimage left an indelible impression on her, and in later years she recalled, in a personal letter, how she was touched by “the spirit of service” she discovered in Haifa, saying “… a Queen or a beggar woman would be met with the same loving sweetness. Indeed it was this divine normality that really confirmed me here as a little girl of twelve years.”
This was the first time she met the Guardian, and she often described the meeting with a sweet pleasure in the remembrance. She and her mother were installed in the Old Western Pilgrim House at the end of Persian Street and May, who had not been able to walk for over a year, was resting in bed. Since her nights were frequently sleepless and her nerves delicate, Mary had learned from an early age to protect her from intrusion. She was in the hallway of the Pilgrim House when the door suddenly opened and a young man stepped in, with a swift, deft movement, and asked if he could see Mrs. Maxwell. She was a tall girl for her age, fully grown and physically well-developed. She said she pulled herself up to her full height and, looking him squarely in the eyes with considerable dignity and aplomb, asked to know who it was who wished to see Mrs. Maxwell. The young gentleman meekly replied, “I am Shoghi Effendi.” Upon which she turned tail and fled into her mother’s room in mortified embarrassment. Hiding her head, as she used to say “like a puppy”, beneath her mother’s pillows, she could only point to the door and gasp, “He - he - is there!” when her mother asked her what the matter was. And when May Maxwell found out who it was behind the door, she said, “Pull yourself together, Mary, and go and invite him in.”
When May returned to North America almost a year later, she was filled with joy and restored to health, redoubling her efforts in the teaching work and educating the friends in the Bahá’í Administration, in which Shoghi Effendi had carefully instructed her.
Two years later, Mary made a second pilgrimage, in the company of two of her mother’s friends. Back in Canada afterwards, she threw herself eagerly into all kinds of youth activities, both within the Bahá’í administration and elsewhere. Shortly before she was 16, she became a member of the Executive Committee of The Fellowship of Canadian Youth for Peace, serving as its Treasurer. From then on she was continuously involved in membership on committees and in her efforts to promote the cause of racial amity. Soon after she turned 21, she was elected to the Local Spiritual Assembly of Montreal.
Her training in oratory and public speaking began when she was almost 16. Increasingly, she began to accompany her mother on teaching trips, during which she had occasion not only to observe her mother’s manner of giving Bahá’í talks but also to learn how to lecture herself, in the Bahá’í spirit. Just before her nineteenth birthday, she spoke at the National Bahá’í Convention in a manner that touched many peoples’ hearts and minds. At the age of twenty, she delivered a lecture at the Friends’ Meeting House in New York City on “Mysticism in the Bahá’í Religion.” The other speakers at this Congress were all seasoned lecturers and famous orators, including Syud Hossain, the editor of “The New Orient,” who was billed as an “incomparable lecturer on the Orient, world peace and international relations.” After her lecture she received a standing ovation, and on that same day was given the following cable: “HEARTY CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR BEAUTIFUL CONSCIENTIOUS AND ABLE PRESENTATION OF A GREAT AND DIFFICULT THEME I AM HAPPY AND PROUD OF YOU—SYUD HOSSAIN”.
In addition to lecturing, she wrote books and plays and poetry, developing that diversity and range of skills that would serve to make of her a perfect instrument of service in the hands of her beloved Guardian, who noted her progress with keen interest. Her highest hope was to one day become an author. Her study of the translation of Nabíl’s Narrative, The Dawn-Breakers, which was encouraged by Shoghi Effendi, resulted in the article entitled ‘The Re-florescence of Historical Romance in Nabil’, later published in The Bahá’í World, Volume V (1932–34). The ardent, youthful enthusiasm that it reveals must have informed the lectures she gave on the Heroic Age of the Cause in Montreal, Green Acre, Louhelen, and Esslingen in Germany.
Shoghi Effendi closely followed the development and spiritual training of this remarkable young woman, writing to May Maxwell:
I feel that she should, while pursuing her studies, devote her energies to an intensive study of, & vigorous service to, the Cause, of which I hope & trust she will grow to become a brilliant and universally honoured exponent. I am sure, far from feeling disappointed or hurt at my suggestion, she will redouble in her activities & efforts to approach & attain the high standard destined for her by the beloved Master. Your plan of travelling with her throughout Canada in the service of the Cause is a splendid one & highly opportune. Kindly assure her & her dear father of my best wishes & prayers for their happiness welfare & success.
Your true & affectionate brother,
In May 1933, Mary spent several weeks in Washington, D.C., teaching the Faith and concentrating her efforts on finding ways to draw the two opposing races together, for the cause of racial unity was close to her heart and the rights and responsibilities of both races was a subject that touched her keenly throughout her life. She also attended official functions with her father in Montreal during her early twenties, meeting the Governor General of Canada at events such as the Royal Canadian Academy’s Fifty-Fourth Exhibition. This balance between her obligations to the Bahá’í community in particular and society at large served her well in later years. She always had the ability to mingle with officialdom and humble folk with equal ease; her support of local Bahá’í teaching work as well as social issues at the international level was equally enthusiastic throughout her life.
She very much wanted to learn Spanish, but when, in 1935, civil war threatened her plans to go to Spain, she was induced to accompany her cousins Jeanne and Randolph Bolles to Germany, where she taught and helped the Bahá’ís for the next year and a half, while May spent most of her time in France and Belgium. She became enamoured of the country and learned the language with fluency.
At the end of their extended stay in Europe, she and her mother received a warm invitation to come to the Holy Land. In a letter addressed to Mary Maxwell in late January 1936, the Guardian’s secretary wrote:
Before your coming to Haifa Shoghi Effendi would advise you to visit the centers in Germany and if possible to extend your trip to Austria and the Balkans where we have now a chain of active and prosperous communities that link the Western with the Eastern part of Europe. He would even suggest that you follow that route when you come to Haifa, as this would be of great interest to you, and of invaluable encouragement to the friends in these new and somewhat isolated centers.
Shoghi Effendi added, in his postscript:
Dear and valued co-worker:
I wish to assure you in person of a hearty welcome to visit the Holy Land and lay your head on the sacred Threshold after having rendered valuable services in the Faith in both America and Europe. For those you have asked me to pray, in your letters, I will supplicate the blessings of Bahá’u’lláh. Rest assured. Your true brother,
Mary Maxwell fulfilled the Guardian’s injunctions, travelling to every community in Germany and meeting every isolated believer, group, or Assembly. By the time she had accomplished this task, a year had passed and the rumblings of war were upon them. It was impossible now to travel through the Balkans or Austria, and she and her mother were then urged by Shoghi Effendi to come to the Holy Land directly.
One day during this pilgrimage, which began in 12 January 1937, another chapter opened in the life of Mary Maxwell when the mother of Shoghi Effendi told May Maxwell of Shoghi Effendi’s offer of marriage to her daughter.
The wedding took place on 24 March 1937, in Haifa, and it was on this occasion that the beloved Guardian gave her the name Rúhíyyih Khánum. In The Priceless Pearl, she described her wedding day, when she went with Shoghi Effendi to Bahjí, saying, “I remember I was dressed, except for a white lace blouse, entirely in black for this unique occasion, and was a typical example of the way oriental women dressed to go out into the streets in those days, the custom being to wear black.” The ring, which was a simple Bahá’í ring in the shape of a heart, had been given to her the day Shoghi Effendi proposed. He had asked her then to wear it on a chain around her neck, and on the day of their marriage, in the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh, he took it from her and put it on her finger himself. It was a ring that had been given to Shoghi Effendi by the Greatest Holy Leaf, and Rúhíyyih Khánum later had one made exactly like it for the beloved Guardian. They were both buried with their rings on their fingers. After the recital of the marriage vow in the room of the Greatest Holy Leaf, the mother of Shoghi Effendi placed Rúhíyyih Khánum’s hand in the hand of her son, according to the old Persian tradition of dast be dast.
News of the marriage electrified the Bahá’í world, both in the East and the West. Cables composed by the Guardian and signed by his mother were sent to the National Spiritual Assembly of Iran and the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States and Canada. The one to the West, dated 27 March 1937, read as follows:
ANNOUNCE ASSEMBLIES CELEBRATION MARRIAGE BELOVED GUARDIAN STOP INESTIMABLE HONOUR CONFERRED UPON HANDMAID OF BAHA’U’LLAH RUHIYYIH KHANUM MISS MARY MAXWELL STOP UNION OF EAST AND WEST PROCLAIMED BY BAHA’I FAITH CEMENTED.
(Signed) Ziaiyyih, mother of the Guardian.
For Rúhíyyih Khánum the period of adjustment that followed was a training time that could not have been easy. She was parted from her beloved parents, living a great distance from her familiar life in Montreal, and plunged into an oriental household together with all her in-laws under one roof. This must have been difficult for a young woman raised with a degree of freedom that was unusual even in the West at that time. Another difficulty was the language. Although the members of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s family all spoke English, they communicated with each other in Persian. It was only natural, when comments were passed and jokes were shared which she did not understand, that she would have felt left out. Were it not for her beloved, Rúhíyyih Khánum may well have been bereft.
But there were greater tests than mere loneliness and far greater trials than cultural isolation. In those early years of her marriage, one by one, the Guardian’s family fell away from faithfulness, until she was alone in that house at the side of her beloved. “Shoghi Effendi held me tight under his protective arms,” she used to say, and she, in turn, became his shield and his sole support. It was also during this turbulent period that Shoghi Effendi pulled her up short one day, and gesturing to her hand, said, “Your destiny is in the palm of your own hand.” This was a great shock for her and made her realize that she was not immune to her own tests of faith. “When Shoghi Effendi married me,” she used to say, “I felt safe and snug and thought I had nothing more to worry about, my destiny was in his hand. But when he said that, there it was, back in my own hand.” She would always make us laugh when she finished this very serious tale.
Her firmness in the Covenant, a manifestation of her deep faith, was her greatest protection in those early years of marriage. Perhaps the outpouring of her heart years later, in her poem “This is Faith”, written on April 4, 1954, exemplifies the depth of her understanding of this subject.
THIS IS FAITH
To walk where there is no path
To breathe where there is no air
To see where there is no light -
This is Faith.
To cry out in the silence,
The silence of the night,
And hearing no echo believe
And believe again and again -
This is Faith.
To hold pebbles and see jewels
To raise sticks and see forests
To smile with weeping eyes -
This is Faith.
To say: “God, I believe” when others deny,
“I hear” when there is no answer,
“I see” though naught is seen -
This is Faith.
And the fierce love in the heart,
The savage love that cries
Hidden Thou art yet there!
Veil Thy face and mute Thy tongue
Yet I see and hear Thee, Love,
Beat me down to the bare earth,
Yet I rise and love Thee, Love!
This is Faith.
A year after her marriage, Rúhíyyih Khánum wrote to her mother, “If anyone asked me what my theme was in life I should say, ‘Shoghi Effendi’.” It is clear from this that she had thrown herself with heart and soul into her destiny, and her task required a rigorous discipline. Under Shoghi Effendi’s strict tutelage she applied herself to conscientious study. Although she was an autodidact by nature and preferred to teach herself, rather than receive instruction—a habit she applied to many subjects in later life—he was, in effect, her principal teacher.
The reciprocity between Rúhíyyih Khánum and her parents was preserved despite the difficulties of distance and separation. She believed that service to the Cause performed by any one of them was a shared blessing for them all and of direct consequence to each, a theme echoed by May Maxwell in December 1939, when she wrote, “It is not only thru my passionate love for this great Bahá’í Faith, but thru my love for her, and yearning to be more worthy of her, that I have considered going to South America to teach.” And so it was that May Maxwell, seventy years old, with a weak heart and in very poor health, decided to make her supreme sacrifice. She arrived in Buenos Aires at the end of February, accompanied by her young niece, Jeanne Bolles, and the next day, on 1 March 1940, she died of a massive heart attack.
This was a terrible shock to Rúhíyyih Khánum. She received the devastating news from the Guardian, who told her, “Now I will be your mother” and comforted her with infinite compassion and patience. To Sutherland Maxwell, he cabled:
GRIEVED PROFOUNDLY YET COMFORTED ABIDING REALIZATION BEFITTING ONE SO NOBLE SUCH VALIANT EXEMPLARY SERVICE CAUSE BAHA’U’LLAH STOP RUHIYYIH THOUGH ACUTELY CONSCIOUS IRREPARABLE LOSS REJOICES REVERENTLY GRATEFUL IMMORTAL CROWN DESERVEDLY WON HER ILLUSTRIOUS MOTHER STOP ADVISE INTERMENT BUENOS AIRES STOP HER TOMB DESIGNED BY YOURSELF ERECTED BY ME SPOT SHE FOUGHT FELL GLORIOUSLY WILL BECOME HISTORIC CENTRE PIONEERS BAHA’I ACTIVITY STOP MOST WELCOME ARRANGE AFFAIRS RESIDE HAIFA STOP BE ASSURED DEEPEST LOVING SYMPATHY.
On 4 March, Rúhíyyih Khánum cabled the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada, saying:
HUMBLY GRATEFUL BELOVED MOTHER ANSWERED GUARDIAN’S CALL TURNED SOUTHWARD SACRIFICED LIFE HOLY FAITH. BEG PRAYERS DAUGHTER MAY FOLLOW HER FOOTSTEPS.
Mr. Maxwell joined the Guardian and Rúhíyyih Khánum in Rome in the summer of 1940, but their return to Palestine was prevented by the war. They did, however, manage to reach France and cross over to England on the last boat before the German army closed the borders. Eventually they were able to sail to South Africa and then travel north to the Holy Land via Egypt.
The war years were filled with activity and great achievements at the World Centre. During this period Shoghi Effendi commissioned Sutherland Maxwell to make the drawings for the superstructure of the Shrine of the Báb, and their love and collaboration was the greatest source of joy to Rúhíyyih Khánum. She used to say, “I really learned to know and appreciate my father through Shoghi Effendi.” Also during this time, Rúhíyyih Khánum assisted the beloved Guardian in the proofreading of his masterpiece, God Passes By.
One of the most outstanding services performed by Rúhíyyih Khánum during her twenty years at the side of the Guardian, was her role as his secretary, a task she undertook almost immediately after her marriage. From 1941, when she became Shoghi Effendi’s principal secretary in English, until 1957, she wrote thousands of letters on his behalf. She frequently described how Shoghi Effendi trained her to be a good secretary. In the early years, he would write down the points he wanted her to incorporate in pencil at the bottom of the letter he had received, but later on, when he saw how well she wrote, he would just tell her what to answer verbally. However, she always stressed the fact that he read every single letter she wrote for him before appending his own postscript. In later years, she wrote not only his personal letters but also his official correspondence with National Spiritual Assemblies.
Rúhíyyih Khánum told us that Shoghi Effendi encouraged her to write, and once, as she was copying her own favourite poems in a book, he asked to see them for himself. The next day he gave her book back saying, “I read them all. They are beautiful, they made me cry.” At Shoghi Effendi’s suggestion she wrote an article on the interment of the remains of the Purest Branch and his mother, Navváb, on Mt. Carmel next to the resting-place of the Greatest Holy Leaf, which was published in volume VIII of The Bahá’í World. His encouragement was also the main reason she wrote the book Prescription For Living. She often said she felt so sad for the young men who returned, confused and disillusioned, from World War II to a changed and unfamiliar world. She wanted to give them some light, some direction, and a way to see hope for the future.
In The Priceless Pearl Rúhíyyih Khánum refers to the war in the Holy Land prior to the formation of the State of Israel, as gunfire echoed between sea and mountain, while she remained calm in the heart of the storm with Shoghi Effendi as her example. After the formation of the State, the situation changed and Rúhíyyih Khánum enjoyed a degree of freedom that had not been possible for her before. Her social life became more varied and lively, and she gave wonderful dinner parties and soirées for the dignitaries of Haifa.
During the 1940’s her father became severely ill, and in 1950 it was decided that Mr. Maxwell should go to Canada with his Swiss nurse until the situation improved in Israel. When they parted at the end of that summer, it was the last time Rúhíyyih Khánum saw her dear father. He died two years later in Montreal.
When the first International Bahá’í Council was formed in 1951, Rúhíyyih Khánum was a member and its chosen liaison with the Guardian. Then, in 1952, after the passing of Sutherland Maxwell, Shoghi Effendi sent a cable dated March 26th to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States announcing that “mantle Hand Cause now falls shoulders his distinguished daughter Amatu’l Baha Ruhiyyih who already rendered still rendering manifold no less meritorious self sacrificing services World Centre Faith Bahá’u’lláh”. The following year, the Maxwell home in Montreal was declared a Shrine, marking not only the great gift bestowed by ‘Abdu’l-Baha on the Canadian Bahá’í community but also the unique services of William Sutherland, May and Mary Maxwell.
On 15 December 1952, the beloved Guardian announced that five Intercontinental Conferences would be held during the course of the Holy Year, and designated Rúhíyyih Khánum to be his representative at the one in Wilmette. She was, in his words, to
DELIVER MY OFFICIAL MESSAGE ASSEMBLED BELIEVERS ELUCIDATE CHARACTER PURPOSES IMPENDING DECADE LONG SPIRITUAL WORLD CRUSADE RALLY PARTICIPANTS ENERGETIC SUSTAINED ENTHUSIASTIC PROSECUTION COLOSSAL TASKS AHEAD.
She was also delegated by him to dedicate the Temple in North America on his behalf and
UNVEIL OCCASION COMPLETION CONSTRUCTION MOTHER TEMPLE WEST PRIVILEGED ATTENDANTS WILMETTE CONFERENCE MOST PRIZED REMEMBRANCE AUTHOR FAITH NEVER BEFORE LEFT SHORES HOLY LAND TO BE PLACED BENEATH DOME CONSECRATED EDIFICE STOP MOREOVER ASSIGNING HER TASK ACT MY DEPUTY HISTORIC CEREMONY MARKING OFFICIAL DEDICATION HOLIEST MASHRIQUL ADHKAR BAHAI WORLD REARED EVERLASTING GLORY HONOUR MOST GREAT NAME HEART NORTH AMERICAN CONTINENT [signed] SHOGHI
She had left North America eighteen years before, when she was a young Bahá’í and was known as the daughter of May Maxwell. Now she was returning as Amatu’l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum, the consort of the beloved Guardian and a Hand of the Cause of God. In Wilmette, she rose to speak like the queen she was, her delicate, gauzy mantilla framing her lovely young face, and even from the photographs it is easy to see how she would have made an unforgettable impression on the Bahá’ís, as well as on the non-Bahá’í seekers and distinguished speakers. After attending the 1953 Forty-fifth Annual Convention, the Bahá’í Dedication of the Temple, and the public Dedication the next day, she attended the All-America Intercontinental Conference from 3 to 6 May.
Then, accompanied by Amelia Collins, a Hand of the Cause and Vice-president of the International Bahá’í Council, Rúhíyyih Khánum went to Montreal to visit her father’s resting-place. A memorial gathering was held at the graveside on 10 May and that evening she spoke at a public meeting at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. While in Montreal, she also sorted out her parents’ belongings and, with Shoghi Effendi’s consent, shipped her personal furniture to the Master’s House in Haifa, where she created an exquisite library, which she used for special dinner parties, and a beautiful drawing room. In an act that pleased the Guardian immensely, she gave her Montreal home to the Faith, and it is now registered in the name of the National Spiritual Assembly of Canada.
In 1952, when some degree of safety and order was restored to Israel, Shoghi Effendi re-opened the opportunity for pilgrimage. Groups of nine pilgrims, from both the East and the West, began to arrive. To welcome them, to cater to their needs, and respond to their concerns was a task that consumed not only many hours of the Guardian’s time but those of Rúhíyyih Khánum, who planned and prepared the pilgrims’ meals in the face of great shortages of all kinds of essential foods in the post-war years.
In 1957, the beloved Guardian and Rúhíyyih Khánum left together for their summer vacation for the last time. The Guardian was very tired. As usual, he maintained all his correspondence and carried with him all his notes for his map of the Ten Year Crusade, which was approaching its mid-way point. In August that year he thrilled the Bahá’ís of the world with a two-fold message. The first part was the announcement of five Intercontinental Conferences to celebrate this mid-way point of the Crusade, and the second was his appointment of eight more Hands of the Cause in different continents. Everyone was filled with anticipation. Everyone looked forward to jubilation and celebration ahead. We in Uganda were thrilled beyond belief, for we had learned with awe and excitement that our precious Amatu’l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum had been designated by the beloved Guardian to represent him at the African Conference in Kampala. She was going to come to us!
And then, on 4 November, the cataclysmic news of Shoghi Effendi’s passing rocked the Bahá’í world. He had died in London, we heard in disbelief. The community that had for thirty-six years looked to him for guidance, for encouragement, for leadership and, above all, for his encompassing love, was bereft. There was no one to turn to but Amatu’l-Bahá, although she was the most forlorn of all at that time. It was up to her to take the next step to ascertain what should be done. The fulfilment of all the Guardian’s hopes and aspirations for the Ten Year Crusade became of uppermost importance to her. His good pleasure became the goal and object of her existence. From that moment to the end of her life her priorities never wavered.
In the face of her own immeasurable personal loss, it is remarkable to consider with what self-abnegation her heart turned to her fellow believers at that critical time of trial. All around her, friends were prostrate with grief, helpless with sorrow, leaving her to rise alone to the painful task in front of her, for the sake of her beloved Shoghi Effendi. She had to inform the Hands of the Cause and the Bahá’í world of this tragic event in such a manner as might lessen as much as possible the shock waves it was bound to cause. She had to tell the heart-broken believers to come to his funeral and bid their Guardian a last farewell. She went around London looking for a befitting burial ground and found it. She searched for a shroud and chose the casket and bought it. She saw to every detail in the sad days that followed. And the day after the funeral, when she was driving away from the graveside, she saw in her mind’s eye a vision of a column, an eagle and a globe, and she conceived the monument above his grave. She remembered how fond Shoghi Effendi had been of beautiful columns, and how he had said it was a pity that in his gardens there was no place for a single column. With this thought in mind, she designed the graceful column rising over his grave and placed the globe on it, surmounted by the symbol of his victories: the majestic eagle, with its wings open.
On 15 November Rúhíyyih Khánum arrived in Haifa, and three days later the first Conclave of the Hands of the Cause began in Bahjí. They searched for the will of Shoghi Effendi but did not find it, and so the Hands of the Cause informed the community that they must turn to the explicit directives in The Dispensation of Bahá’u’lláh, which Shoghi Effendi had referred to as his Will and Testament, to complete the goals of the Ten Year Crusade and to arrange for the election of the Universal House of Justice at the end of that period.
The Hands of the Cause were strong individuals from both the East and the West whose primary aim was to direct and hold together the affairs of the Cause of God. Amatu’l-Bahá played a vital role in their early Conclaves, serving as a bridge between cultures and languages – a Westerner imbued with Eastern understanding, whose horizons had been widened and stretched by Shoghi Effendi. Her deep sense of fairness and her ability to see clearly both sides of an argument facilitated the narrowing and negotiating of the gaps between the different Hands.
During that first year after Shoghi Effendi’s passing, Rúhíyyih Khánum spent most of her time in Bahj̤í and slept in the Mansion. Apart from carrying out all her heavy administrative duties, she threw herself into physical work, cleaning the Shrine and working in the gardens. She could not bear the emptiness and the loneliness of her apartment in Haifa. The next five or six years were perhaps the saddest and hardest in her entire life. But she demonstrated her own, immediate commitment to service when she accepted to attend the first of the series of the Intercontinental Bahá’í Conferences called by the beloved Guardian to mark and celebrate the mid-way point of the Ten Year Crusade. Initially, her grief was so intense that she did not want to go, but her fellow Hands convinced her that since it had been the wish of Shoghi Effendi, she must do so.
Although Rúhíyyih Khánum was in mourning and wore black for one year after Shoghi Effendi’s passing, she altered this custom for the duration of her trip to Africa. She told me afterwards that all her clothes for that Conference had been seen and approved by the Guardian the previous summer, and this was one of the reasons why she did not come to Kampala in mourning clothes. She also wanted to create a sense of jubilation during this Conference, the way Shoghi Effendi had anticipated it should be.
Over nine hundred people stood up in sorrowful awe as she entered the conference hall in Kampala on 24 January 1958. And then, four hundred African Bahá’ís raised their voices and began to sing “Alláh-u-Abhá”, softly and spontaneously. The air was so charged with love, so pent-up with emotion as Amatu’l-Bahá walked up the central aisle, that we were all shaken. When she stood before us to address the Conference, her voice broke and tears came to her eyes several times. But the waves of deep love and sympathy in that audience were tangible; they enveloped and caressed her, and at the end assuaged her sorrow. Her love for the Africans and their continent became a permanent part of her life afterwards. She brought to that Conference a wider perspective, a global outlook, an all-embracing point of view that we had been lacking, and she went back from it recharged with hope and courage to continue, travelling to different conferences and to the Dedications of both Mother Temples of Africa and Australasia during the Custodianship of the Hands.
In 1961, the election of the International Bahá’í Council took place. This precursor of the Universal House of Justice greatly assisted the Hands in the preparation for that first International Bahá’í Convention, and Rúhíyyih Khánum, who had been tasked by the Hands with the completion of the interior of the International Archives Building, turned for assistance to the Council’s younger members. Beautiful Chinese and Japanese furniture purchased by Shoghi Effendi during the last year of his life for the purpose of decorating and displaying the holy relics, had to be carefully arranged and meticulously prepared for their precious contents. Artistry, a sense of proportion, a strict adherence to the placement of the objects according to the priority of their importance—all these guided Amatu’l-Bahá in her task.
The conclusion of the Ten Year Crusade, in April of 1963, was crowned by the election of the long-awaited Universal House of Justice in Haifa. The election took place in the House of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, which had played such a significant role in the unfoldment of the Administrative Order of Bahá’u’lláh. To befittingly honour the occasion, Rúhíyyih Khánum had ordered thousands of roses and carnations to carpet the inner rooms of all three Shrines. She opened that International Bahá’í Convention and every successive one until that of April 1998. Then, after the election of the Supreme Body, Rúhíyyih Khánum and the Hands of the Cause of God rejoiced with 7,000 Bahá’ís in Albert Hall in London, England, at the first Bahá’í World Congress. Amatu’l-Bahá invited a number of indigenous Bahá’ís from Africa, South America and Australia to attend this historic event as her personal guests. Her deeply moving and thought-provoking talk on Shoghi Effendi’s life was a masterpiece of eloquence and poignancy, as we brought his Ten Year Crusade to its triumphal close.
Rúhíyyih Khánum’s systematic travels around the globe began in the year 1964. Many times, she talked about the genesis of these unique trips, recounting an incident in the lifetime of Shoghi Effendi. One day, as he was passing by her desk, he stopped and looked at her and said, “What will become of you after I die?” She was shattered by this unexpected remark and began to weep, saying, “Oh, Shoghi Effendi, don’t say such terrible things. I don’t want to live without you.” He paid no attention, however, and after a pause continued, “I suppose you will travel and encourage the friends.” She said that this was the only remark he ever made about what she should do with her life after his passing. And so it was that, when she was somewhat freed from her arduous administrative duties and the affairs of the Cause were placed under the infallible guidance of the Universal House of Justice, she took these words as his last instructions to her and did her utmost to fulfil his hopes.
In the course of her long life she travelled to 185 countries, dependencies and major islands of the globe. While she visited just 31 countries in her first 54 years, she travelled in all the rest between 1964 and 1997. When I tried to count the number of territories she visited in these 34 years, I came up with the astounding figure of 154. Many of these countries were visited more than once, and some, like India, were honoured by her presence as many as nine times. Her trips were of such a variety that the best way to look at them is through the range of activities that they involved.
Her role as Ambassador of the Bahá’í Faith, for example, was remarkable in itself. Everywhere she went she met with Heads of State and high-ranking authorities at the national, local or even village levels, moving with complete ease from one class of society to another. Although she herself was in every way queenly and worthy of honour and respect, she always approached these emblems of material power and political authority with deference and a natural humility. She would explain that her visit was in the nature of a courtesy call, and nothing more, stating that she had come from the World Centre of the Bahá’í Faith and was visiting the Bahá’ís in that country, who were a strictly a-political and non-partisan people, well-wishers of the government and obedient to its laws. In all her encounters, she strove to be positive and looked for every opportunity to offer praise and appreciation in her dealings with state officials, even if very little was called for.
In Africa alone she met with seventeen Heads of State and was instrumental in helping the Bahá’ís achieve many of their legal goals. The highest in rank and the leader she most valued meeting in all her travels was Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. She greatly admired his nobility, his courage and his uprightness. The Head of State whose meeting brought her the greatest joy and pride was His Highness Malietoa Tanumafili II of Western Samoa, the first ruling monarch to embrace the Cause of Bahá’u’lláh.
She always maintained a high standard of propriety, and when she shared the platform or sat at dinner with such people as Prince Philip of Great Britain or the Archbishop of Canterbury, with Governors-General and Ambassadors, she invariably won their admiration and respect, not only for herself but most importantly for the Cause of Bahá’u’lláh. This was her ultimate concern. Rúhíyyih Khánum truly had no personal ambition; she was not in the least interested in meeting or moving in such company for its own sake or her pleasure. It was only for the Cause that she would accept any appointments and invitations of this kind.
Another activity which she undertook in the course of her many travels was contact with the representatives of the media. She must have had hundreds of newspaper, radio and television interviews, in the capital cities around the world as well as in the large and small towns of every country she visited. Before going to meet a journalist or be filmed in a studio she would always pray and ask for God’s guidance, His assistance and, above all, His protection. She used to tell the friends that when they met the representatives of the media, their principal aim should be to create a good impression of the Faith. “If these people only remember one thing, that the word ‘Bahá’í’ means something good, you have achieved your purpose,” she used to say.
Another vital service rendered by Amatu’l-Bahá in the course of her many travels was her role as the representative of the Universal House of Justice at national and international Bahá’í Conferences across the planet. Standing on platforms on behalf of the Sacred Institution she served, in the course of Bahá’í Conventions at Ridván, at youth conferences and Native gatherings, at inaugurations of Bahá’í Temples and other great historical events to which the Bahá’ís streamed from all the quarters of the globe, she was erect and regal and forever memorable, the essence of dignity and beauty. Her mastery of just the right word on each of these occasions, her ability to draw out her audience and touch people’s hearts, her clear and simple logic, and, above all, her wit and her bewitching sense of humour—these qualities endeared her to and charmed her audiences. When asked, she attributed her power of public speaking to the fact that at the beginning of her marriage Shoghi Effendi had recommended that she memorize the beautiful prayer of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá which begins, “O Lord, my God and my Haven in my distress! My shield and my Shelter in my woes! …” and which concludes with the poignant sentence: “Loose my tongue to laud Thy name amidst Thy people, that my voice may be raised in great assemblies and from my lips may stream the flood of thy praise.” She also attributed it to the advice given by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to May Maxwell, to turn her heart to Him, pray, and then speak, for Rúhíyyih Khánum herself followed this advice faithfully. She gave talks with the same degree of resourcefulness in French, in German, and in Persian.
One of the most memorable services in the course of Amatu’l-Bahá’s many travels was the time she spent and the attention she gave to perfectly ordinary people in the peripheries of society. When asked what was her favourite spot, she would often say that it was in the villages and jungles of the world. She rarely missed the opportunity to validate people in far flung and remote places whom few had heard of and whose simple actions none might ever know.
How often in the course of these forty years by her side did I witness shy, unsure, sometimes dejected human beings uplifted by her genuine kindness, her praise and patience. Her instinct was to approach people with an open, candid heart, simply and unself-consciously. It was to look for positive qualities in people and verbalize these. But though she was the perfect diplomat in some respects, she was also very direct and often said things frankly and outspokenly. The driving impulse in all her encounters with the Bahá’ís was to stir them to action and rouse them up so that they would teach the Faith. And often, even when she was critical of individuals, her intent was to protect the Cause. If her manner may at times have appeared abrupt, and initially formidable to those who approached her, it was often the result of her own innate shyness, which few people guessed, for she was disconcerted, to the end of her life, by effusiveness and adulation.
Seldom did Rúhíyyih Khánum travel, especially on her longer trips, without a pet. Her love for animals was such that she would gladly accept the extra hardship of tending and cleaning her pets for the simple joy of their company. Her motto was, “You only live once; why not get clean joy out of it?”
Rúhíyyih Khánum was one of the most hardworking human beings that I have ever met, and she never asked anyone to do anything that she had not or could not also have done herself. Much of her hard work was centred on her home in Haifa, which was the hub of continuous activity until the last two and a half years of her life. She kept a regular entourage around her as busy as herself and trained them rigorously in the arts of practical maintenance.
Her first and foremost concern was always the upkeep and care of the Shrines. Her constant reminder was to keep these precious Holy Shrines exactly the way Shoghi Effendi had arranged them. “This is not a place of innovation, but preservation” was her advice to all. She also undertook periodically to inspect and keep all the Holy Places in order, framing pictures, replacing the frayed and worn out fabrics, keeping an eagle eye on any deviation from the Guardian’s ways. The renovation and furnishing of the House of ‘Abdu’lláh Páshá engrossed her interest for several years.
One of Amatu’l-Bahá’s important social activities in Haifa was her role as hostess. She loved setting a beautiful table, arranging flowers and overseeing every detail of the event. Apart from formal dinners, she would also give many informal parties. After returning from India, every now and then she would be so homesick for that country that she would throw an “Indian Night” party. She would dress the few ladies working at that time in Haifa in her beautiful saris, trace the floors with exquisite patterns made of coloured flour, play Indian music, and we would all enjoy delicious, spicy Indian food under her hospitable roof. And also do the cleaning up with her afterwards! Or there were her exciting “African Nights” when all the friends who were either African or connected to the work in Africa were invited to her home, usually outside in her beautiful garden, and after a scrumptious dinner would drum and sing to their hearts’ content. How exhilarating were her dinner parties for the new Counsellors, too, where the guests, numbering over 90 at times, were squeezed into the main hall, as she would say, “with a shoe horn.” Many hundreds of the friends who met Amatu’l-Bahá on her travels, enjoyed her delightful hospitality and loving attention when visiting Haifa.
There was, of course, a stream of regular nine-day pilgrims with whom she also met, twice a month for nine months of the year. This was a custom and responsibility which went back to her earliest years at the side of Shoghi Effendi, and which she dutifully maintained until the last years of her life. She met with about 2000 pilgrims each year in the main hall of the Master’s House, giving talks that provided guidance and inspiration for many. She also kept up a voluminous correspondence, encouraging institutions and individuals and responding to questions and requests.
Two particular events at the World Centre stand out, during which many hundred of pilgrims flocked through the doors of the Master’s House. In 1968, the Centenary of the arrival of Bahá’u’lláh in the Holy Land brought two thousand Bahá’ís to Haifa and ‘Akká, and in 1992 three thousand Bahá’ís came for the commemoration of the Centenary of the passing of Bahá’u’lláh. On the afternoon of 28 May at Bahjí, they witnessed Amatu’l-Bahá place the cylinder containing the Roll of Honour of the Knights of Bahá’u’lláh at the entrance of the Most Holy Shrine. On the night of Bahá’u’lláh’s Ascension, after a devotional program in the Haram-i-Aqdas, we all circumambulated the Shrine, which Rúhíyyih Khánum had carpeted with thousands of rose buds and carnations.
When one contemplates the fullness of her days and years, many of which were spent in travel, one is filled with wonder at how she managed to do so much writing. Throughout the years Amatu’l-Bahá penned The Priceless Pearl, Manual for Pioneers, The Desire of the World, The Ministry of the Custodians, and Poems of the Passing, an outpouring of her broken heart after the death of Shoghi Effendi, which was printed in 1996. Furthermore, her legacy also includes the production of two important films. The first, her two-hour documentary film “The Green Light Expedition,” was the fruit of her six months’ journey in 1975 through the Amazon Basin, the Peruvian and Bolivian altiplano, to the Bush Negroes of Suriname. Her second film, “The Pilgrimage”, offers a visual pilgrimage to the Bahá’í Holy Places in Haifa and ‘Akká, with Amatu’l-Bahá as guide.
Rúhíyyih Khánum touched and filled the lives of numerous people everywhere around the world, but the primary source of her comfort and happiness in the last decades of her life was her love for the Universal House of Justice and her bond with this Institution and its individual members. When all nine members of the Universal House of Justice came to her home for the last time three weeks before her passing and paid their respects, when she was quite frail and in bed, such a deep sense of happiness and contentment enveloped her that it was tangible, like sunlight, in the room after they left. She lingered quietly in that light a moment, and then said, “I felt their love; they are my closest friends.” This bond, which symbolized her total dedication to the Covenant throughout her life, was strong and vibrant to the end – and always reciprocal.
Her funeral was held in the central hall of the Master’s House. The two Hands of the Cause were present, together with members of the Universal House of Justice, the International Teaching Centre Counsellors, and twenty-four Continental Counsellors from all over the world. Also attending were her family members and representatives from seventy-six National Spiritual Assemblies, senior officials from the Canadian and United States embassies, representatives of the Israeli government, the mayors of Haifa and ‘Akká, other prominent Israeli citizens, and a number of special invited guests. Following the readings and the chanting of the Prayer for the Dead, she left for the last time that house which she had entered as a bride sixty-three years before. Her coffin was carried out by members of the Universal House of Justice, then borne across the street and lowered into its vault by believers representing a variety of ethnic origins. Almost one thousand people, including pilgrims and volunteers serving at the Bahá’í World Centre, stood outside her home, in the closed-off street, and in the garden where her grave had been prepared. The interior of the grave was carpeted on all sides with hundreds of roses and carnations, just as she had arranged for her beloved Shoghi Effendi forty-two years before. And as the rain poured down, more prayers were recited and chanted before her casket was lowered into the ground. The rainstorm that had begun on the night she passed away finally subsided to a drizzle as her precious remains were laid to rest.
I think, to sum up such a life, there are no adequate words but those expressed in the message of the Universal House of Justice to the Bahá’í world after her passing:
19 January 2000
To the Bahá’ís of the World
In the early hours of this morning, the soul of Amatu’l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum, beloved consort of Shoghi Effendi and the Bahá’í world’s last remaining link with the family of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, was released from the limitations of this earthly existence. In the midst of our grief, we are sustained by our confidence that she has been gathered to the glory of the Concourse on High in the presence of the Abhá Beauty.
For all whose hearts she touched so deeply, the sorrow that this irreparable loss brings will, in God’s good time, be assuaged in awareness of the joy that is hers through her reunion with the Guardian and with the Master, Who had Himself prayed in the Most Holy Shrine that her parents be blessed with a child. Down the centuries to come, the followers of Bahá’u’lláh will contemplate with wonder and gratitude the quality of the services—ardent, indomitable, resourceful—that she brought to the protection and promotion of the Cause.
In her youth, Amatu’l-Bahá had already distinguished herself through her activities in North America, and later, both with her dear mother and on her own, she had rendered valuable service to the Cause in Europe. Her twenty years of intimate association with Shoghi Effendi evoked from his pen such accolades as “my helpmate”, “my shield”, “my tireless collaborator in the arduous tasks I shoulder.” To these tributes he added in 1952 his decision to elevate her to the rank of Hand of the Cause of God, after the death of her illustrious father.
The devastating shock of the beloved Guardian’s passing steeled her resolve to lend her share, with the other Hands of the Cause, to the triumph of the Ten Year Crusade, and subsequently to undertake, with characteristic intrepidity, her historic worldwide travels.
A life so noble in its provenance, so crucial to the preservation of the Faith’s integrity, and so rich in its dedicated, uninterrupted and selfless service, moves us to call for befitting commemorations by Bahá’í communities on both national and local levels, as well as for special gatherings in her memory in all Houses of Worship.
With yearning hearts, we supplicate at the Holy Threshold for infinite heavenly bounties to surround her soul, as she assumes her rightful and well-earned position among the exalted company in the Abhá Kingdom.
The Universal House of Justice