With the passing of ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá, the Apostolic Age of the Cause reached its end. The Divine intervention that had begun seventy-seven years earlier on the night the Báb declared His mission to Mullá Ḥusayn—and ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá Himself was born—had completed its work. It had been, in the words of Shoghi Effendi, “a period whose splendours no victories in this or any future age, however brilliant, can rival.…”50 Ahead lay the thousand or thousands of years in which the potentialities that this creative force has planted in human consciousness will gradually unfold.
Contemplation of so great a juncture in the history of civilization brings into sharp focus the Figure whose nature and role have been unique in this six-thousand-year process. Bahá’u’lláh has called ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá “the Mystery of God”. Shoghi Effendi has described Him as “the Centre and Pivot” of Bahá’u’lláh’s Covenant, the “perfect Exemplar” of the teachings of the Revelation of God for the age of human maturity, and “the Mainspring of the Oneness of Humanity”. No phenomenon in any way comparable to His appearance had accompanied any of the Divine Revelations that had given birth to the other great religious systems in recorded history; all of these had been essentially stages preparing humanity for its coming of age. ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá was Bahá’u’lláh’s supreme Creation, the One that made everything else possible. An understanding of this truth moved a perceptive American Bahá’í to write:
Now a message from God must be delivered, and there was no mankind to hear this message. Therefore, God gave the world ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá. ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá received the message of Bahá’u’lláh on behalf of the human race. He heard the voice of God; He was inspired by the spirit; He attained complete consciousness and awareness of the meaning of this message, and He pledged the human race to respond to the voice of God. …to me that is the Covenant—that there was on this earth some one who could be a representative of an as yet uncreated race. There were only tribes, families, creeds, classes, etc., but there was no man except ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá, and ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá, as man, took to Himself the message of Bahá’u’lláh and promised God that He would bring the people into the oneness of mankind, and create a humanity that could be the vehicle for the laws of God.51
Beginning His mission as a prisoner of a brutal, ignorant regime and relentlessly assailed by faithless brothers who ultimately sought His death, the Master single-handedly created of the Persian Bahá’í community a brilliant demonstration of the social development the Cause could produce, inspired the expansion of the Faith across the Orient, raised up communities of devoted believers throughout the West, designed a Plan for the world-wide expansion of the Cause, won the respect and admiration of leaders of thought wherever His influence reached, and provided Bahá’u’lláh’s followers throughout the world with a vast body of authoritative guidance as to the intent of the Faith’s laws and teachings. On the slopes of Mount Carmel He erected with enormous pain and difficulty the Shrine housing the mortal remains of the martyred Báb, the focal point of the processes by which the life of our planet will gradually be organized. Through it all, in every least occasion of a life filled with cares and demands of every sort—a life exposed at all times to examination by enemy and friend alike—He ensured that posterity will possess that treasure of which poets, philosophers and mystics have dreamed all down the ages, a demonstration of unshadowed human perfection.
And finally, it was ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá who made certain that the Divine Order conceived by Bahá’u’lláh for the unification of the human race and the institution of justice in humanity’s collective life would be provided with the means required to realize its Founder’s purpose. For unity to exist among human beings—at even the simplest level—two fundamental conditions must pertain. Those involved must first of all be in some agreement about the nature of reality as it affects their relationships with one another and with the phenomenal world. They must, secondly, give assent to some recognized and authoritative means by which decisions will be taken that affect their association with one another and that determine their collective goals.
Unity is not, that is, merely a condition resulting from a sense of mutual goodwill and common purpose, however profound and sincerely held such sentiments may be, any more than an organism is a product of some fortuitous and amorphous association of various elements. Unity is a phenomenon of creative power, whose existence becomes apparent through the effects that collective action produces and whose absence is betrayed by the impotence of such efforts. However handicapped it often has been by ignorance and perversity, this force has been the primary influence driving the advancement of civilization, generating legal codes, social and political institutions, artistic works, technological achievements without end, moral breakthroughs, material prosperity, and long periods of public peace whose afterglow lived in the memories of subsequent generations as imagined “golden ages”.
Through the Revelation of God to humanity’s coming of age, the full potentialities of this creative force have at last been released and the means necessary to the realization of the Divine purpose have been instituted. In His Will and Testament, which Shoghi Effendi has described as the “Charter” of the Administrative Order, ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá set out in detail the nature and role of the twin institutions that are His appointed Successors and whose complementary functions ensure the unity of the Bahá’í Cause and the achievement of its mission throughout the Dispensation, the Guardianship and the Universal House of Justice. He laid particularly strong emphasis on the authority thus conveyed:
Whatsoever they decide is of God. Whoso obeyeth him not, neither obeyeth them, hath not obeyed God; whoso rebelleth against him and against them hath rebelled against God; whoso opposeth him hath opposed God; whoso contendeth with them hath contended with God.…52
Shoghi Effendi has explained the significance of this extraordinary Text:
The Administrative Order which this historic Document has established, it should be noted, is, by virtue of its origin and character, unique in the annals of the world’s religious systems. No Prophet before Bahá’u’lláh, it can be confidently asserted,… has established, authoritatively and in writing, anything comparable to the Administrative Order which the authorized Interpreter of Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings has instituted, an Order which … must and will, in a manner unparalleled in any previous religion, safeguard from schism the Faith from which it has sprung.53
Before the reading and promulgation of the Will and Testament, the great majority of the members of the Faith had assumed that the next stage in the evolution of the Cause would be the election of the Universal House of Justice, the institution founded by Bahá’u’lláh Himself in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas as the governing body of the Bahá’í world. An important fact for present-day Bahá’ís to understand is that prior to this point the concept of Guardianship was unknown to the Bahá’í community. There was widespread rejoicing at the news of the unique distinction that the Master had conferred on Shoghi Effendi and the continuing link with the Founders of the Faith that his role represented. Until then, however, there had been no appreciation of Bahá’u’lláh’s intent that such an institution should emerge or of the interpretive function it would have to perform—a function whose vital importance has since become readily apparent and which hindsight makes clear was implicit in certain of His Writings.
What was entirely beyond the imagination of anyone then living, whether faithful or ill-disposed, was the transformation in the life of the Cause that the Will of the Master set in motion. “Were ye to know what will come to pass after Me,” ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá had declared, “surely would ye pray that my end be hastened.”54
An appreciation of the place of the Guardianship in Bahá’í history must begin with an objective consideration of the circumstances in which Shoghi Effendi’s mission had to be carried out. Particularly important is the fact that the first half of this ministry unfolded between wars, a period marked by deepening uncertainty and anxiety about all aspects of human affairs. On the one hand, significant advances had been made in overcoming barriers between nations and classes; on the other, political impotence and a resulting economic paralysis greatly handicapped efforts to take advantage of these openings. There was everywhere a sense that some fundamental redefinition of the nature of society and the role its institutions should play was urgently needed—a redefinition, indeed, of the purpose of human life itself.
In important respects, humanity found itself at the end of the first world war able to explore possibilities never before imagined. Throughout Europe and the Near East the absolutist systems that had been among the most powerful barriers to unity had been swept away. To a great extent, too, fossilized religious dogmas that had lent moral endorsement to the forces of conflict and alienation were everywhere in question. Former subject peoples were free to consider plans for their collective futures and to assume responsibility for their relationships with one another through the instrumentality of the new nation-states created by the Versailles settlement. The same ingenuity that had gone into producing weapons of destruction was being turned to the challenging, but rewarding, tasks of economic expansion. Out of the darkest days of the war had come poignant stories, such as the impulse that had briefly moved British and German soldiers to leave the slaughterhouse of the trenches to commemorate together the birth of Christ, providing a flickering glimpse of the oneness of the human race which the Master had tirelessly proclaimed in His journeys across that same continent. Most important of all, an extraordinary effort of imagination had brought the unification of humanity one immense step forward. The world’s leaders, however reluctantly, had created an international consultative system which, though crippled by vested interests, gave the ideal of international order its first suggestion of shape and structure.
The post-war awakening expressed itself world-wide. Under the leadership of Sun Yat-sen, the Chinese people had already thrown off the decadent imperial regime that had compromised the country’s well-being, and were seeking to lay foundations of a rebirth of that country’s greatness. Throughout Latin America, despite terrible and repeated setbacks, popular movements were likewise struggling to gain control over their countries’ destinies and the use of their continent’s immense natural resources. In India, one of the century’s most remarkable figures, Mohandas Gandhi, embarked on an enterprise that would not only revolutionize the fortunes of his country, but also demonstrate conclusively to the world what spiritual force can achieve. Africa was still awaiting its moment of destiny, as were the inhabitants of other colonial lands, but for anyone with eyes to see, a process of change had been set in motion that could ultimately not be suppressed, because it represented the universal yearnings of humankind.
These advances, however encouraging, could not conceal the historic tragedy that had occurred. During the second half of the nineteenth century, the proclamation of the Day of God addressed by Bahá’u’lláh to the rulers of His day, in whose hands lay the destiny of humankind, had been either rejected or ignored by its recipients in both East and West. Reflection on so great a breach of faith throws into sobering perspective the subsequent response that had met the mission of ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá to the West. However much one may rejoice in the praise poured on the Master from every quarter, the immediate results of His efforts represented yet another immense moral failure on the part of a considerable portion of humankind and of its leadership. The message that had been suppressed in the East was essentially ignored by a Western world which had proceeded down the path of ruin long prepared for it by overweening self-satisfaction, leading finally to the betrayal of the ideal embodied in the League of Nations.
In consequence, the two decades immediately after Shoghi Effendi assumed his responsibility for the vindication of the Cause of God were a period of deepening gloom throughout the Western world, which seemed to reflect a massive setback in the process of integration and enlightenment so confidently proclaimed by the Master. It was as if political, social and economic life had fallen into a kind of limbo. Grave doubts developed about the capacity of the liberal democratic tradition to cope with the problems of the times; indeed, in a number of European countries, governments inspired by such principles were replaced by authoritarian regimes. Soon, the economic crash of 1929 led to a world-wide reduction in material well-being, with all the further moral and psychological insecurities that resulted.
An appreciation of these circumstances helps us to understand the magnitude of the challenge facing Shoghi Effendi at the outset of his ministry. So far as the objective condition of humankind, as he encountered it, was concerned, there was nothing that would have inspired confidence that the vision of a new world bequeathed him by the Founders of the Bahá’í Cause could be significantly advanced during whatever span of years might be allowed him.
Nor did the instrument available to him appear to possess the strength, the resilience or the sophistication his task required. In 1923, when Shoghi Effendi was eventually able to assume full direction of the Cause, the core of Bahá’u’lláh’s followers consisted of the body of believers in Iran, of whose number not even a reliable estimate could have then been produced. Denied most of the means necessary to their promotion of the Cause, and severely limited in the material resources at their disposal, the Iranian community was hedged about by constant harassment. In North America, charged with the daunting responsibilities of the Divine Plan, small communities of believers found themselves struggling with the simple challenges of making a livelihood for themselves and their families as the economic crisis steadily deepened. In Europe, Australasia and the Far East, even smaller Bahá’í groups kept the flame of the Faith alive, as did isolated groups, families and individuals scattered throughout the rest of the world. Literature, even in English, was inadequate, and the task of translating the Writings into other major languages and of finding the funds to publish them represented an almost impossible burden.
Though the vision communicated by the Master burned as brightly as ever, the means at their disposal must have appeared to Bahá’ís as pitifully inadequate in the face of the conditions prevailing everywhere. The hulking black foundation of the future Mother Temple of the West, rising over the lake front north of Chicago, seemed to mock the brilliant conception that had dazzled the architectural world only a few years before. In Baghdad, the “Most Holy House”, designated by Bahá’u’lláh as the focal centre of Bahá’í pilgrimage, had been seized by opponents of the Faith. In the Holy Land itself, the Mansion of Bahá’u’lláh was falling into ruin as a result of neglect by the Covenant-breakers who occupied it, and the Shrine housing the precious remains of both the Báb and ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá had progressed no further than the simple stone structure raised by the Master.
A series of exploratory consultations with leading Bahá’ís made it clear to the Guardian that even a formal discussion with qualified believers about the creation of an international secretariat would be not only useless, but probably counterproductive. It was alone, therefore, that Shoghi Effendi set out on the task of propelling forward the vast enterprise entrusted to his hands. How completely alone he was is almost impossible for the present generation of Bahá’ís to grasp; to the extent one does grasp it, the realization is acutely painful.
Initially, the Guardian assumed that the members of the Master’s extended family, whose distinguished lineage brought them immense respect from Bahá’ís everywhere, would welcome the opportunity to assist him in realizing the purpose that the Master’s Will had set out in language so imperative and moving. Accordingly, he invited his brothers, his cousins and one of his sisters, whose education made them qualified for the purpose, to provide the administrative support that the demanding work of the Guardianship required. Tragically, as time passed, one after another of these persons proved dissatisfied with the supporting role thus assigned and careless in the discharge of its functions. Far more seriously, Shoghi Effendi found himself facing a situation in which the authority conferred on him, although expressed in uncompromising terms in the Will and Testament, was seen by those related to him as relatively nominal in character. These individuals preferred to regard the leadership of the Faith as essentially a family affair in which great weight should be placed on the views of senior figures among them, who were supposedly qualified to assume such a prerogative. Beginning with demonstrations of sullen resistance, the situation steadily deteriorated to a point where the children and grandchildren of ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá felt free to disagree with His appointed successor and to disobey his instructions.
Rúḥíyyih Khánum, who saw this process of deterioration in its later stages and herself suffered greatly in witnessing its effects on both the work of the Cause and the Guardian personally, has written:
…one must understand the old story of Cain and Abel, the story of family jealousies which, like a sombre thread in the fabric of history, runs through all its epochs and can be traced in all its events.… The weakness of the human heart, which so often attaches itself to an unworthy object, the weakness of the human mind, prone to conceit and self-assurance in personal opinions, involve people in a welter of emotions that blind their judgment and lead them far astray.… Even though this phenomenon of Covenant-breaking seems to be an inherent aspect of religion this does not mean it produces no damaging effect on the Cause.… Above all it does not mean that a devastating effect is not produced on the Centre of the Covenant himself. Shoghi Effendi’s whole life was darkened by the vicious personal attacks made upon him.55
This sombre background casts in an all the more brilliant light the achievements of the Greatest Holy Leaf, sister of ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá and last survivor of the Faith’s Heroic Age. Bahíyyih Khánum played a vital role in guarding the interests of the Cause after the Master’s death and became Shoghi Effendi’s sole effective support. Her fidelity evoked from his pen perhaps the most deeply moving passages he was ever to write. The apostrophe he addressed to her after her passing in 1932 was set in a letter to the Bahá’ís “throughout the West”, which itself read in part:
Only future generations and pens abler than mine can, and will, pay a worthy tribute to the towering grandeur of her spiritual life, to the unique part she played throughout the tumultuous stages of Bahá’í history, to the expressions of unqualified praise that have streamed from the pen of both Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá, the Center of His covenant, though unrecorded, and in the main unsuspected by the mass of her passionate admirers in East and West, the share she has had in influencing the course of some of the chief events in the annals of the Faith, the sufferings she bore, the sacrifices she made, the rare gifts of unfailing sympathy she so strikingly displayed—these, and many others stand so inextricably interwoven with the fabric of the Cause itself that no future historian of the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh can afford to ignore or minimize.…Which of the blessings am I to recount, which in her unfailing solicitude she showered upon me, in the most critical and agitated hours of my life? To me, standing in so dire a need of the vitalizing grace of God, she was the living symbol of many an attribute I had learned to admire in ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá.56
For long years, the Guardian felt that the protection of the Cause required him to maintain silence about the deteriorating situation in the Holy Family. Only as opposition finally burst into acts of open defiance, eventually involving the family in shameful collaboration and even marriages with members of the very band of Covenant-breakers against whose treachery the Will and Testament of the Master had warned in vehement language, as well as with a local family deeply hostile to the Cause, did Shoghi Effendi eventually feel compelled to expose to the Bahá’í world the nature of the delinquencies with which he was having to deal.57
This sad history is of importance to an understanding of the Cause in the twentieth century not only because of what the Guardian called the “havoc” it wreaked in the Holy Family, but because of the light it casts on the challenges the Bahá’í community will increasingly face in the years ahead, challenges predicted in explicit language by both the Master and the Guardian. Apart from the insincerity that marked all too many of them, the relatives of Shoghi Effendi demonstrated little or no awareness of the spiritual nature of the role conferred on him in the Will and Testament. That the Revelation of God to the age of humanity’s maturity should have brought with it, as a central feature of its mission, an authority essential for the restructuring of social order represented a spiritual challenge they seemed unable, or perhaps never sought, to understand. Their abandonment of the Guardian is a lesson that will remain with posterity down through the centuries of the Bahá’í Dispensation. The fate of this most privileged but unworthy company of human beings underlines for all who read their story both the significance that the Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh holds for the unification of humankind and the uncompromising demands it makes on those who seek its shelter.
In considering the events of the ministry of Shoghi Effendi, Bahá’ís need to make the effort of imagination to see, through his eyes, the nature of the mission laid on him. Our guide is the body of writings he has left. ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá had proclaimed in countless Tablets and talks the pivotal principle of Bahá’u’lláh’s message: “In this wondrous Revelation, this glorious century, the foundation of the Faith of God and the distinguishing feature of His Law is the consciousness of the Oneness of Mankind.”58 ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá had been equally emphatic in asserting, as already noted, that the revolutionary changes taking place in every field of human endeavour now made the unification of humanity a realistic objective. It was this vision that, for the thirty-six years of his Guardianship, provided the organizing force of Shoghi Effendi’s work. Its implications were the theme of some of the most important messages he wrote. Addressing in 1931 the friends in the West, he opened for them a brilliant vista:
The principle of the Oneness of Mankind—the pivot round which all the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh revolve—is no mere outburst of ignorant emotionalism or an expression of vague and pious hope. Its appeal is not to be merely identified with a reawakening of the spirit of brotherhood and good-will among men, nor does it aim solely at the fostering of harmonious coöperation among individual peoples and nations. Its implications are deeper, its claims greater than any which the Prophets of old were allowed to advance. Its message is applicable not only to the individual, but concerns itself primarily with the nature of those essential relationships that must bind all the states and nations as members of one human family.… It implies an organic change in the structure of present-day society, a change such as the world has not experienced.… It calls for no less than the reconstruction and the demilitarization of the whole civilized world—a world organically unified in all the essential aspects of its life, its political machinery, its spiritual aspiration, its trade and finance, its script and language, and yet infinite in the diversity of the national characteristics of its federated units.59
A concept that showed itself strongly in the Guardian’s writings was the organic metaphor in which Bahá’u’lláh, and subsequently ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá, had captured the millennia-long process that has carried humanity to this culminating point in its collective history. That image was the analogy that can be drawn between, on the one hand, the stages by which human society has been gradually organized and integrated, and, on the other, the process by which each human being slowly develops out of the limitations of infantile existence into the powers of maturity. It appears prominently in several of Shoghi Effendi’s writings on the transformation taking place in our time:
The long ages of infancy and childhood, through which the human race had to pass, have receded into the background. Humanity is now experiencing the commotions invariably associated with the most turbulent stage of its evolution, the stage of adolescence, when the impetuosity of youth and its vehemence reach their climax, and must gradually be superseded by the calmness, the wisdom, and the maturity that characterize the stage of manhood.60
Deliberation on this vast conception was to lead Shoghi Effendi to provide the Bahá’í world with a coherent description of the future that has since permitted three generations of believers to articulate for governments, media and the general public in every part of the world the perspective in which the Bahá’í Faith pursues its work:
The unity of the human race, as envisaged by Bahá’u’lláh, implies the establishment of a world commonwealth in which all nations, races, creeds and classes are closely and permanently united, and in which the autonomy of its state members and the personal freedom and initiative of the individuals that compose them are definitely and completely safeguarded. This commonwealth must, as far as we can visualize it, consist of a world legislature, whose members will, as the trustees of the whole of mankind, ultimately control the entire resources of all the component nations, and will enact such laws as shall be required to regulate the life, satisfy the needs and adjust the relationships of all races and peoples. A world executive, backed by an international Force, will carry out the decisions arrived at, and apply the laws enacted by, this world legislature, and will safeguard the organic unity of the whole commonwealth. A world tribunal will adjudicate and deliver its compulsory and final verdict in all and any disputes that may arise between the various elements constituting this universal system.… The economic resources of the world will be organized, its sources of raw materials will be tapped and fully utilized, its markets will be coördinated and developed, and the distribution of its products will be equitably regulated.61
Writing a definitive interpretation of the Administrative Order in “The Dispensation of Bahá’u’lláh”, Shoghi Effendi made particular reference to the role that the institution he himself represented would play in enabling the Cause “to take a long, an uninterrupted view over a series of generations.…” This unique endowment expressed itself with particular clarity in his description of the dual nature of the historical process that he saw unfolding in the twentieth century. The landscape of international affairs would, he said, be increasingly reshaped by twin forces of “integration” and “disintegration”, both of them ultimately beyond human control. In the light of what meets our eyes today, his previsioning of the operation of this dual process is breathtaking: the creation of “a mechanism of world inter-communication … functioning with marvellous swiftness and perfect regularity”;62 the undermining of the nation-state as the chief arbiter of human destiny; the devastating effects that advancing moral breakdown throughout the world would have on social cohesion; the widespread public disillusionment produced by political corruption; and—unimaginable to others of his generation—the rise of global agencies dedicated to promoting human welfare, coordinating economic activity, defining international standards, and encouraging a sense of solidarity among diverse races and cultures. These and other developments, the Guardian explained, would fundamentally alter the conditions in which the Bahá’í Cause would pursue its mission in the decades lying ahead.
One of the striking developments of this kind that Shoghi Effendi discerned in the Writings he was called on to interpret concerned the future role of the United States as a nation, and, to a lesser extent, its sister nations in the Western hemisphere. His foresight is all the more remarkable when one remembers that he was writing during a period of history when the United States was determinedly isolationist in both its foreign policy and the convictions of the majority of its citizens. Shoghi Effendi, however, envisioned the country assuming an “active and decisive part … in the organization and the peaceful settlement of the affairs of mankind”. He reminded Bahá’ís of ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá’s anticipation that, because of the unique nature of its social composition and political development—as opposed to any “inherent excellence or special merit” of its people—the United States had developed capacities that could empower it to be “the first nation to establish the foundation of international agreement”. Indeed, he foresaw the governments and peoples of the entire hemisphere becoming increasingly oriented in this direction.63
The role that the Bahá’í community must play in helping bring about this consummation of the historical process had been prefigured in the summons addressed to His followers by the Báb, at the very birth of the Cause:
O My beloved friends! You are the bearers of the name of God in this Day.… You are the lowly, of whom God has thus spoken in His Book: “And We desire to show favour to those who were brought low in the land, and to make them spiritual leaders among men, and to make them Our heirs.” You have been called to this station; you will attain to it, only if you arise to trample beneath your feet every earthly desire, and endeavour to become those “honoured servants of His who speak not till He hath spoken, and who do His bidding”.… Heed not your weaknesses and frailty; fix your gaze upon the invincible power of the Lord, your God, the Almighty.… Arise in His name, put your trust wholly in Him, and be assured of ultimate victory.64
As early as 1923, Shoghi Effendi was moved to open his heart on this subject to the friends in North America:
Let us pray to God that in these days of world-encircling gloom, when the dark forces of nature, of hate, rebellion, anarchy and reaction are threatening the very stability of human society, when the most precious fruits of civilization are undergoing severe and unparalleled tests, we may all realize, more profoundly than ever, that though but a mere handful amidst the seething masses of the world, we are in this day the chosen instruments of God’s grace, that our mission is most urgent and vital to the fate of humanity, and, fortified by these sentiments, arise to achieve God’s holy purpose for mankind.65
Fully aware of the condition into which society had fallen, the consequences of his betrayal at the hands of family members on whose assistance he should have been able to rely, and the relative weakness of the resources available to him in the Bahá’í community itself, Shoghi Effendi arose to forge the means needed to realize the mission bequeathed to him.
To one degree or another, most Bahá’ís no doubt appreciated that the Assemblies they were being called on to form had a significance far beyond the mere management of practical affairs with which they were charged. ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá, who had guided this development, had spoken of them as:
…shining lamps and heavenly gardens, from which the fragrances of holiness are diffused over all regions, and the lights of knowledge are shed abroad over all created things. From them the spirit of life streameth in every direction. They, indeed, are the potent sources of the progress of man, at all times and under all conditions.66
It fell to Shoghi Effendi, however, to assist the community to understand the place and role of these national and local consultative bodies in the framework of the Administrative Order created by Bahá’u’lláh and elaborated in the provisions of the Master’s Will and Testament. An obstacle faced by a significant number of believers in this respect was the unexamined assumption of many that the Cause was essentially a “spiritual” association in which organization, while not necessarily antithetical, did not constitute an inherent feature of the Divine purpose. Emphasizing that the Kitáb-i-Aqdas and the Will and Testament “are not only complementary, but … mutually confirm one another, and are inseparable parts of one complete unit”,67 the Guardian invited the believers to reflect deeply on a central truth of the Cause they had embraced:
Few will fail to recognize that the Spirit breathed by Bahá’u’lláh upon the world, and which is manifesting itself with varying degrees of intensity through the efforts consciously displayed by His avowed supporters and indirectly through certain humanitarian organizations, can never permeate and exercise an abiding influence upon mankind unless and until it incarnates itself in a visible Order, which would bear His name, wholly identify itself with His principles, and function in conformity with His laws.68
He went on to urge the Faith’s followers to realize the essential difference between the Cause of Bahá’u’lláh, whose Revealed Texts contain detailed provisions for such an authoritative Order, and those preparatory Revelations whose Scriptures had been largely silent on the administration of affairs and on the interpretation of their Founders’ intent. In the words of Bahá’u’lláh: “The Prophetic Cycle hath, verily, ended. The Eternal Truth is now come. He hath lifted up the Ensign of Power.…”69 Unlike the Dispensations of the past, the Revelation of God to this age has given birth, Shoghi Effendi said, to “a living organism”, whose laws and institutions constitute “the essentials of a Divine Economy”, “a pattern for future society”, and “the one agency for the unification of the world, and the proclamation of the reign of righteousness and justice upon the earth”.70
The friends should strive to appreciate, therefore, the Guardian urged, that the Spiritual Assemblies they were painstakingly establishing throughout the world were the forerunners of the local and national “Houses of Justice” envisioned by Bahá’u’lláh. As such, they were integral parts of an Administrative Order that will, in time, “assert its claim and demonstrate its capacity to be regarded not only as the nucleus but the very pattern of the New World Order destined to embrace in the fullness of time the whole of mankind”.71
For a few in the young communities of the West, such a departure from traditional conceptions of the nature and role of religion proved too great a test, and Bahá’í communities suffered the distress of seeing valued co-workers drift away in search of spiritual pursuits more congenial to their inclinations. For the vast majority of believers, however, great messages from the Guardian’s pen, such as “The Goal of a New World Order” and “The Dispensation of Bahá’u’lláh”, threw brilliant light on precisely the issue that most concerned them, the relationship between spiritual truth and social development, inspiring in them a determination to play their part in laying the foundations of humanity’s future.
The Guardian provided, as well, the organizing image for this mighty work. The “Heroic Age” of Bahá’u’lláh’s Dispensation, he declared, had ended with the passing of ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá. The Bahá’í community now embarked on the “Iron Age”, the “Formative Age”, in which the Administrative Order would be erected throughout the planet, its institutions established and the “society building” powers inherent in it fully revealed. Far ahead lay what Shoghi Effendi called the “Golden Age” of the Dispensation, leading eventually to the emergence of the Bahá’í World Commonwealth that will constitute the establishment on earth of the Kingdom of God and the creation of a world civilization.72 The impulse that had been initially communicated to human consciousness through the revelation of the Creative Word itself, whose revolutionary social implications had been proclaimed by the Master, was now being translated by their appointed interpreter into the vocabulary of political and economic transformation in which the public discourse of the century was everywhere taking place. Lending the process irresistible force, illuminating ever new dimensions of Bahá’í experience, and serving as the mainspring of the unification of humankind it proclaimed was the Covenant that Bahá’u’lláh had established between Himself and those who turn to Him.
Although not initially designated “Spiritual Assemblies”, the councils that local Bahá’í communities in Persia had been encouraged by ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá to create had assumed responsibility for the administration of their affairs. In the light of what was to follow, no one with a sense of history can fail to be struck by the fact that the Faith’s first Spiritual Assembly, that of Tehran, was founded in 1897, the year of Shoghi Effendi’s own birth. Under the Master’s guidance, intermittent meetings held by the four Hands of the Cause in Persia had gradually evolved into this institution that served simultaneously as Persia’s “Central Spiritual Assembly” and as the governing body of the local community in the capital. By the time of ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá’s passing, there were more than thirty Local Spiritual Assemblies established in Persia. In 1922 Shoghi Effendi called for the formal establishment of Persia’s National Spiritual Assembly, an achievement delayed until 1934 by the demands related to the taking of a reliable census of the community as a basis for the election of delegates.
Outside Persia, the believers in ‘Ishqábád, in Russian Turkestan, elected their first Local Spiritual Assembly, a body that assumed an important role in the project for the construction of the first Bahá’í Mashriqu’l-Adhkár in ‘Ishqábád. In North America a variety of consultative arrangements—“Boards of Council”, “Council Boards”, “Boards of Consultation” and “Working Committees”—performed analogous functions, evolving gradually into elected bodies that constituted the forerunners of Spiritual Assemblies. By the time of the Master’s passing, there were perhaps forty such councils functioning in North America. These developments prepared the way for the eventual emergence of the first National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada, which evolved from the “Temple Unity Board”, a body created in 1909 to coordinate construction of the future House of Worship. It was formed in 1923, although the administrative requirements set by the Guardian for this step were met only in 1925. Before this latter date arrived, National Assemblies had been established in the British Isles, in Germany and Austria, in India and Burma, and in Egypt and the Sudan.73
As the formation of National and Local Spiritual Assemblies was taking place, the Guardian began to lay emphasis on the importance of their securing recognition as “corporate persons” under civil law. By securing such formal incorporation, in whatever fashion proved practicable, Bahá’í administrative institutions would be enabled to hold property, enter into contracts, and gradually assume a range of legal rights vital to the interests of the Cause. The importance Shoghi Effendi attached to this new stage of administrative evolution becomes clear in the photocopies of such civil instruments that began to become a major feature of the photographic coverage of the expansion of the Faith in successive volumes of The Bahá’í World. Indeed, once the Mansion at Bahjí had been repossessed and fully restored to its original condition, and appropriately furnished, Shoghi Effendi put together a collection of this much valued documentation for display there as an encouragement and education for the growing stream of pilgrims to the World Centre.
The processes of civil incorporation began with the adoption in 1927 of a Declaration of Trust and By-Laws for the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States and Canada, which gained civil recognition as a voluntary trust two years later. On 17 February 1932 the first local Bahá’í Assembly, that of Chicago, adopted papers of incorporation which, together with those adopted by that of New York City on 31 March of that year, were to become a pattern for such instruments throughout the world. By 1949, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Canada—formed when the two North American Bahá’í communities had separated the previous year—was able to secure formal recognition of its status under civil law through a special Act of Parliament, a victory which Shoghi Effendi hailed as “an act wholly unprecedented in the annals of the Faith in any country, in either East or West”.74
These pressing administrative demands did not distract Shoghi Effendi from other tasks that were vital to shaping the spiritual life of a global community. The most important of these was the arduous work that he alone could perform in providing the growing body of the believers who were not of Persian background with direct and reliable access to the Writings of the Faith’s Founders. The Hidden Words, The Kitáb-i-Íqán, the priceless treasury brought together with so much love and insight under the title Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, Prayers and Meditations of Bahá’u’lláh and Epistle to the Son of the Wolf provided the spiritual nourishment the work of the Cause urgently required, as did Shoghi Effendi’s translation and editing of Nabíl’s “Narrative” under the title The Dawn-Breakers.
Bahá’í pilgrims found spiritual enrichment of yet another kind in the Holy Places and historic sites that the Guardian acquired—often at the cost of protracted and wrenching negotiations—and lovingly restored. Shoghi Effendi was equally responsive to unexpected opportunities that offered themselves to his historical perspective. In 1925, a Sunni Muslim religious court in Egypt denied civil recognition to marriages contracted between Muslim women and Bahá’í men, insisting that “The Bahá’í Faith is a new religion, entirely independent” and that “no Bahá’í, therefore, can be regarded a Muslim” (and therefore qualified to enter into marriage with someone who was).75 Seizing on the larger implications of this apparent defeat, the Guardian made wide use of the court’s definitive judgement to reinforce the claim of the Cause in international circles to be an independent Faith, separate and distinct from its Islamic roots.
As the Bahá’í community was constructing administrative foundations which would permit it to play an effective role in human affairs, the accelerating process of disintegration that Shoghi Effendi had discerned was undermining the fabric of social order. Its origins, however determinedly ignored by many social and political theorists, are beginning, after the lapse of several decades, to gain recognition at international conferences devoted to peace and development. In our own time, it is no longer unusual to encounter in such circles candid references to the essential role that “spiritual” and “moral” forces must play in achieving solutions to urgent problems. For a Bahá’í reader, such belated recognition awakens echoes of warning addressed over a century earlier by Bahá’u’lláh to the rulers of human affairs: “The vitality of men’s belief in God is dying out in every land.… The corrosion of ungodliness is eating into the vitals of human society.…”76
The responsibility for this greatest of tragedies, the Guardian emphasized, rests primarily on the shoulders of the world’s religious leaders. Bahá’u’lláh’s severest condemnation is reserved for those who, presuming to speak in God’s name, have imposed on credulous masses a welter of dogmas and prejudices that have constituted the greatest single obstacle against which the advancement of civilization has been forced to struggle. While acknowledging the humanitarian services of countless individual clerics, He points out the consequences of the way in which self-appointed religious elites, throughout history, have interposed themselves between humanity and all voices of progress, not excluding the Messengers of God Themselves. “What ‘oppression’ is more grievous,” He asks, “than that a soul seeking the truth, and wishing to attain unto the knowledge of God, should know not where to go for it…?”77 In an age of scientific advancement and widespread popular education, the cumulative effects of the resulting disillusionment were to make religious faith appear irrelevant. Impotent themselves to deal with the spiritual crisis, most of those clerics of various Faiths who became aware of Bahá’u’lláh’s message either ignored the moral influence it was demonstrating or actively opposed it.78
Recognition of this feature of history does not diminish the harm done by those who have sought to take advantage of the spiritual vacuum thus left. The yearning for belief is inextinguishable, an inherent part of what makes one human. When it is blocked or betrayed, the rational soul is driven to seek some new compass point, however inadequate or unworthy, around which it can organize experience and dare again to assume the risks that are an inescapable aspect of life. It was in this perspective that Shoghi Effendi warned the members of the Faith, in unusually strong language, that they must try to understand the spiritual calamity engulfing a large part of humankind during the decades between the two world wars:
God Himself has indeed been dethroned from the hearts of men, and an idolatrous world passionately and clamorously hails and worships the false gods which its own idle fancies have fatuously created, and its misguided hands so impiously exalted.… Their high priests are the politicians and the worldly-wise, the so-called sages of the age; their sacrifice, the flesh and blood of the slaughtered multitudes; their incantations, outworn shibboleths and insidious and irreverent formulas; their incense, the smoke of anguish that ascends from the lacerated hearts of the bereaved, the maimed, and the homeless.79
Like opportunistic infections, aggressive ideologies took advantage of the situation created by the decline of religious vitality. Although indistinguishable from one another in the corruption of faith they represented, the three belief systems that played a dominant role in human affairs during the twentieth century differed sharply in their secondary and more conspicuous characteristics to which the Guardian drew attention. In denouncing “the dark, the false, and crooked doctrines” that would bring devastation on “any man or people who believes in them”, Shoghi Effendi warned particularly against “the triple gods of Nationalism, Racialism and Communism”.80
Of Fascism’s founding regime, created by the so-called “March on Rome” in 1922, little need be said. Long before it and its leader had been swept into oblivion during the concluding months of the second world war, Fascism had become an object of ridicule among the majority of even those who had originally supported it. Its significance lies, rather, in the host of imitators it spawned and which were to proliferate throughout the world like some malignant series of mutations, in the decades since then. Fuelled by a manic nationalism, this aberration of the human spirit deified the state, discovered everywhere imaginary threats to the national survival of whatever unhappy people it had fastened upon, and preached to all who would listen the notion that war has an “ennobling” influence on the human soul. The comic opera parade of uniforms, jackboots, banners and trumpets usually associated with it should not conceal from a contemporary observer the virulent legacy it has left in our own age, enshrining in political vocabulary such anguished terms as desaparecidos (“the disappeared”).
While sharing Fascism’s idolatry of the state, its sister ideology Naziism made itself the voice of a far more ancient and insidious perversion. At its dark heart was an obsession with what its proponents called “race purity”. The single-minded determination with which it pursued its murderous ends was in no way weakened by the demonstrably false postulates upon which it was based. The Nazi system was unique in the sheer bestiality of the act most commonly associated with its name, the programme of genocide systematically carried out against populations considered either valueless or harmful to humanity’s future, a programme that included a deliberate attempt literally to exterminate the entire Jewish people. Ultimately, it was Naziism’s determination that a “master race” of its own conception must rule over the entire planet which was principally responsible for fulfilling ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá’s prophetic warning of twenty years earlier that another war, far more terrible than the first, would ravage the world. Like Fascism, Naziism has left a detritus in our own time. In its case, this takes the form of a language and symbols through which fringe elements in present-day society, demoralized by the economic and social decay around them and made desperate by the absence of solutions, vent their impotent rage on minorities whom they blame for their disappointments.
The false god that the Master was moved to identify explicitly, and the one denounced by name by Shoghi Effendi, had demonstrated its character at its outset by brutally destroying, during the latter part of World War I, the first democratic government ever established in Russia. For long years, the Soviet system created by Vladimir Lenin succeeded in representing itself to many as a benefactor of humankind and the champion of social justice. In the light of historical events, such pretensions were grotesque. The documentation now available provides irrefutable evidence of crimes so enormous and follies so abysmal as to have no parallel in the six thousand years of recorded history. To a degree never before imagined, let alone attempted, the Leninist conspiracy against human nature also sought systematically to extinguish faith in God. Whatever view of the situation political theorists may currently hold, no one can be surprised that such deliberate violence to the roots of human motivation led inexorably to the economic and political ruin of those societies luckless enough to fall under Soviet sway. Its longer-term spiritual effect, tragically, was to pervert to the service of its own amoral agenda the legitimate yearnings for freedom and justice of subject peoples throughout the world.
From a Bahá’í point of view, humanity’s worship of idols of its own invention is of importance not because of the historical events associated with these forces, however horrifying, but because of the lesson it taught. Looking back on the twilight world in which such diabolical forces loomed over humanity’s future, one must ask what was the weakness in human nature that rendered it vulnerable to such influences. To have seen in someone like Benito Mussolini the figure of a “Man of Destiny”, to have felt obliged to understand the racial theories of Adolf Hitler as anything other than the self-evident products of a diseased mind, to have seriously entertained the reinterpretation of human experience through dogmas that had given birth to the Soviet Union of Josef Stalin—so wilful an abandonment of reason on the part of a considerable segment of the intellectual leadership of society demands an accounting to posterity. If undertaken dispassionately, such an evaluation must, sooner or later, focus attention on a truth that runs like a central strand through the Scriptures of all of humanity’s religions. In the words of Bahá’u’lláh:
Upon the reality of man … He hath focused the radiance of all of His names and attributes, and made it a mirror of His own Self.… These energies … lie, however, latent within him, even as the flame is hidden within the candle and the rays of light are potentially present in the lamp.… Neither the candle nor the lamp can be lighted through their own unaided efforts, nor can it ever be possible for the mirror to free itself from its dross.81
The consequence of humanity’s infatuation with the ideologies its own mind had conceived was to produce a terrifying acceleration of the process of disintegration that was dissolving the fabric of social life and cultivating the basest impulses of human nature. The brutalization that the first world war had engendered now became an omnipresent feature of social life throughout much of the planet. “Thus have We gathered together the workers of iniquity”, Bahá’u’lláh warned over a century earlier. “We see them rushing on towards their idol.… They hasten forward to Hell Fire, and mistake it for light.”82