Zia Khanum

By Bahiyeh Afnan Shahid

Zia Khanum — A lady of light — what a lovely name my maternal grandmother had. A lady in every sense of the word she truly was, but her light — it seems to me — faced formidable challenges.

Zia Khanum’s story is probably the saddest to write. She was the eldest of the Master [‘Abdu’l-Baha]’s surviving children, all daughters, and in her twenties was married to Mirza Hadi Shirazi, a member of the Bab’s family and thus an Afnan. They had five children, three sons and two daughters, the eldest of whom was Shoghi Effendi, then Ruhanguise, Mehranguise, Hossein and Riaz. She, like her two other sisters who had children, had a close, loving relationship with each and every one of their children.

While the Master, her father was alive, she, like her sisters, was pivotal in receiving, meeting and dealing with the many Baha’i pilgrims that came to Haifa to visit her illustrious father. Taking care of family and household matters, caring for the large community and the numerous pilgrims who gravitated around the three focal points of their pilgrimage: the shrine of the Bab on Mt. Carmel, that of Baha’u’llah at Bahji and the presence of the Master in Haifa, filled her life and called upon her many talents and abilities. In the family she was greatly respected for her quiet dignity, her wise and well thought out guidance, and her steady and balanced attitude to life. She was well versed in Farsi, Arabic (a language for which she had a lot of respect and which she considered important to master) and English.

In 1921 this world gets shattered. The Master passes away and in his will appoints his eldest grandson, Shoghi Effendi as the Guardian of the Cause established 77 years earlier, thanks to the twin revelations of the Bab and Baha’u’llah. A heavy burden for the young shoulders, mind and soul of a 24-year old student at Oxford, oblivious of what lay in store for him. Faced with the tremendous task that lay before him, his first reaction is to abandon the scene and seek solitude. This he does, first for about three months at his aunt Rouha Khanum’s home (at No. 9 Persian Street, adjacent to the Master’s home at No. 7) and then for about a year in Europe, mainly in Switzerland, with Ruhi Afnan, his cousin and good friend.

Zia Khanum had fulfilled her role in the household of the Master with its many-faceted responsibilities with utmost sincerity and dedication. After the passing of the Master and as the mother of a Guardian unsure and unsteady regarding his ability or worthiness to carry out the heavy responsibilities placed on his young shoulders, Zia Khanum played a crucial role, together with the dedicated assistance of the whole family, in keeping matters on course and in order, until Shoghi Effendi was finally ready to take up his duties. (See Ruhi Afnan’s account of that period in his letter to the Spiritual Assembly of Iran dated 1970). Mother and son were very close and she was often the conduit to the busy and hard-working Guardian. One example is the advice that her nephew Fuad Afnan sought regarding his plan to go and study engineering at the Imperial College in London. He wanted to know whether the Guardian would have any objections to that. Her answer was that there was nothing to object to in such a plan, and Fuad took her word as representative of the Guardian’s go ahead. Shoghi Effendi did not object while Fuad Afnan was in London; however, some years after he was killed, during the wartime blitz on London, he saw fit to posthumously ‘cast him out’ for going to London ‘without his knowledge’. (See Shoghi Effendi’s cable of November 2, 1941 to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States and Canada regarding this matter).

With the passage of time, and particularly after Shoghi Effendi’s marriage to Mary Maxwell [Ruhiyyih Khanum], in 1937, relations became strained and the day came when Zia Khanum found herself living in her father’s house, now the home of the Guardian, and under orders not to communicate with both her daughters Rouhanguise and Mehranguise (for having married Nayer and Hassan Afnan), and two of her sons, Hussein and Riaz.

To make matters worse, and as she related to Ruhi Afnan (see his 1970 letter to the Spiritual Assembly of Iran), she found herself treated in a manner most unsuitable for one of the beloved daughters of the Master, well known and respected by the many Baha’is who had visited Haifa, and with whom strong bonds and enduring friendships had been forged based on the mutual respect and love of the Master and the Baha’i faith that Abdul Baha so eloquently preached. Under the circumstances, she found that her only recourse was to leave the Andaroun (as large family homes were called in Iran) and to retire to the simple house that her husband had on the slopes of Mount Carmel, set amid a lovely setting that his Shirazi love of gardens and his faithful servant/gardener Shehadi had helped him establish and tend. Known by the immediate family by the name of Karm (vineyard) they were eventually joined by their two sons, Hossein, who had been ‘cast out’ some years before, and by Riaz, who though still ‘in’, invoked the wrath of the Guardian for secretly seeing his mother Zia Khanum, in a small public garden in Haifa.

It was a sad, secluded and lonely life. Cast out and shunned by Baha’is upon the orders of their son, Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahai Faith, they were cut off from their religious community, their social milieu and their purpose in life.

Her nephew, Hassan Shahid, well remembers the times when Zia Khanum would visit her sister Ruha Khanum at No. 9 Persian street, and standing at a window that gave on Shoghi Effendi’s living quarters at No. 7 Persian street, would, with tears rolling down her face, mourn the ‘aloneness’ of Shoghi Effendi. Within a time span of over three decades from the busy, bustling, throbbing centre that had been the Master’s home, family and fountainhead of inspiration, life now found them ‘outcasts’, rejected, shunned and designated as unworthy members of the Baha’i Faith. What great crimes had they committed? What heresy? What disloyalty?

Upon her death in 1951, her son Hussein called and informed Shoghi Effendi of the passing away of his mother. He, for the first time, visited Karm and arranged for his mother to be buried in the Baha’i cemetery in Haifa, where later he also laid his father to rest. In death, at least and at last, they were gathered back among the faithful.