The eldest daughter of Ruha Khanum and Mirza Jalal Shahid, Maryam’s mother was the daughter of Abdul Baha, her father the son of Sultan’ul Shuhada (The King of Martyrs, thus named by Baha’u’llah).
By the time she was in her late teens, she had developed into a very presentable, well-read, dignified young lady who was not only intelligent but one of the two most beautiful granddaughters of the Master. (The other was my mother, Rouhanguise Rabbani Afnan). Enamoured of education, as were all the grandchildren of the Master – who had actively encouraged it for both male and female members of the family – she ended up, in the early thirties, at the Sorbonne in Paris.
Destiny, however, played havoc with any plans she had, or that the Master had made for her when she was stricken with Hodgkin’s disease, a form of cancer, which in her case, proved fatal. It had been the Master’s wish that she should marry her cousin, Shoghi Efendi, whom the Master, unknown to anyone, had in his Will, appointed as his successor and the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith. His eyes, however, had roamed in other directions, specifically to Mary Maxwell, the daughter of a Canadian couple, May and Sutherland Maxwell. May Maxwell had met the Master on one of his trips to the New World, when, captivated by both his message and his personality, she had converted to the Bahai Faith, later to be followed by her husband. They had come, with their daughter, to Haifa, where Shoghi Effendi had met Mary, and according to his brother Hossein, he had fallen in love with her. However, Maryam and the Master’s plans stood in the way.
Originally, Maryam had been given six months to live, but, thanks to the treatment she received in Paris and later in Beirut by a first-class Jewish doctor who had escaped from Nazi Germany, and who, before leaving for the United States worked at the American University Hospital in Beirut, she lived in the shadow of cancer for a good ten years, suffering the recurring fevers, the fatigue, the weakness and the glands that swelled time after time, requiring more radiation treatment. To his credit, something that my husband Hassan Shahid, Maryam’s younger brother, always granted him, Shoghi Effendi did not marry Mary Maxwell until Maryam had been pronounced incurable. It was only then that he went ahead and married the woman he loved. In the early forties, Maryam finally succumbed to the cancer that had bedevilled her life. Maybe a blessed release for her, but it left her mother a victim of life-long depression and her father a broken man. Not that losing a child was an unusual source of sorrow, but, for reasons better known to himself, Shoghi Effendi had dealt harshly with Maryam’s parents, as he had with the rest of the family, and his ‘displeasure’ resulted in the estrangement and expulsion of the various members, including Maryam’s parents, from a community of which they had not only been an integral part, but to which they had been devoted, heart and soul and which they considered an honour to serve.
Shoghi Effendi, however, did not see it that way. For him, devotion or service to the Cause meant unthinking obedience and unquestioning acceptance of what he saw as his ‘bequeathed’ right, granted by the Master’s unstinting praise and granting of powers in his Will.
If one is permitted to differ, in my humble opinion, Shoghi Effendi was human – this before the Baha’is decided to consider the Master (who deliberately called himself Abdul Baha, the servant, if not the slave of Baha), Shoghi Effendi, and the House of Justice as ‘infallible’ beings or institution that could do no wrong. Shoghi Effendi was a human being, to whom great power was given to run the affairs of the Cause in conjunction with an elected House of Justice over which he was to preside. These were the terms of his appointment as specified in the Master’s Will. During his lifetime there was no House of Justice, but Hands of the Cause, whom he chose and appointed and could remove at will, and of which his wife and father-in-law became members. Consultation, checks and balances, as conceived by the Master, do not seem to have been the order of the day. Under the circumstances, is it too farfetched to say that it was too much to manage in a rational and dispassionate way?
Married to a lady described by a historian of the Cause (who shall remain nameless but who certainly knew what he was talking about) as ‘strong’, they were also childless, because she was unable to bear children, and therefore unable to produce a son for Shoghi Effendi to appoint as his heir, as the Master’s Will specified. On the way, they made sure that no member of the family remained on the scene either to participate in the service of the Cause or possibly to succeed him, for it had been incumbent on him, as specified in the Aqdas, to write a will and as specified by the Master’s Will, to name a successor. After Shoghi Effendi’s death in 1957, even though a House of Justice was finally elected and brought into being, Ruhiyyih Khanum, nee Mary Maxwell, entitled Amatul Baha (Handmaid of Glory), seemed to have been in control of matters and as her book The Priceless Pearl shows, made decisions and passed judgements on both the members of the family of Abdul Baha and the members of the Baha’i community. All of this was a much greater blow to Maryam’s parents than the loss of their daughter, heavy as that was. Elderly, alone, ostracised by members of their natural milieu, the Baha’i community, they bore their grief in dignified silence until the end of their lives.