Shoghi Effendi Rabbani

By Bahiyeh Afnan Shahid

Shoghi Effendi (March 1, 1897 – November 4, 1957) was the eldest grandson of ‘Abdu’l-Baha. The family name of Rabbani (godly) had been given to Shoghi Effendi by Abdul Baha, and was consequently also used by his siblings.

Much has been written about Shoghi Effendi — from a variety of perspectives and for a variety of reasons — to which there is little to add here. What remains to be said, which has never been said before, and which is very painful to recount, is to try, in a short and succinct way, to present the angle that reflects the pain and the suffering that the members of the family bore with the brunt of the Guardian’s anger, displeasure, disapproval, judgement and punishment due to a long list of supposed wrongdoings such as ‘disobedience’, ‘treachery’, ‘plotting’, ‘rebelliousness’, ‘disloyalty’, ‘covenant breaking’ etc, etc, etc, (if you want the whole ‘dis-honour roll’ then check the cables Shoghi Effendi sent with regard to the various members of the family in Adib Taherzadeh’s book The Covenant of Baha’u’llah), with which he accused them — rightly or wrongly, who is to say, since he was the sole prosecutor, sole judge and one man jury, and there was no recourse to anything or anyone else for anything as simple as a chance for an open hearing or even handed defence. Maybe the depth of the pain and the hurt — and the great sense of relief — can be realized when, decades later we heard it said by a Baha’i of impeccable standing — who, for obvious reasons shall remain nameless — quoting no less a source than Hassan Balyuzi, to the effect that the family of Shoghi Effendi had never done anything to harm the Cause. One voice, now silenced by time, but nevertheless remembered, one opinion that privately, of course, seemed to say something different… What relief, what pleasure and pain. One man, one voice in the wilderness of the ‘outcasts,’ maybe saying ‘Why?’

The four daughters of the Master [‘Abdu’l-Baha], Zia Khanum, Touba Khanum, Rouha Khanum, and Monawar Khanum so loved and respected their father you would say he was their Lord, not only their father. It was inconceivable that any of them would do anything that ran contrary to their father’s wishes. This not only applied to the position of Shoghi Effendi as the Guardian of the Cause, duly appointed by their father, but to any action, deed or word that would adversely affect the Cause of Baha’u’llah and the life work of the Master.

They had lived their lives as highly respected honourable ladies of a highly respected, honourable family. All four ended their lives ‘expelled’ from the faith of their forebears and ‘shunned’ by the community of their father and grandfather. Why? Because they ‘disobeyed’. Three of them suffered nervous breakdowns. Why? According to the Italian family physician, Dr. Costero, of the Italian hospital in Haifa — who knew them and their circumstances very well — because of the upheavals in their lives, which left them bereft of the support and the warmth of the community they belonged to, old, alienated, lonely and friendless in a world where they no longer had peace or place.

Things had not always been like that. When Shoghi Effendi first took over the reins of the Guardianship he truly was a benevolent source of help and succour to the family; maybe — and here I say maybe because this is pure speculation on my part — to a certain extent, he was returning the help and succour that the family had provided during his very traumatic period of adjustment to the new role and responsibilities that had been unexpectedly thrust upon him at the very young age of twenty three. He was kind, friendly and supportive. But soon things changed. Could it be that he took the will of the Master too literally to heart and thus required total obedience from both family and community? A strong suspicious mind was a character trait (particularly marked in his younger brother Riaz) which also soon manifested itself in him as well, leading to a willingness to listen and believe ‘reports’ brought in by people who thought that they would curry favour with him. Eventually he used informers to keep an eye on people.

Shoghi Effendi required obedience to his wishes. This became very obvious when it came to the matter of marriages — those of his sisters or cousins — and travels abroad for purposes of preaching the Faith, particularly in the case of Ruhi Afnan, or of study abroad, as in the case of Fuad Afnan. The strange thing was that both with Ruhi and Fuad Afnan, he mentioned their going to the US and England as causes of his displeasure only after the fact. Ruhi Afnan had gone and come back from two very successful tours of the US where he had visited and spoken at many Baha’i gatherings and occasions with the full knowledge and approval of Shoghi Effendi. He knew full well that Fuad had gone to London to study at the Imperial College. He knew that while there, and until his death in an air raid during the London blitz, he was very involved with the Baha’i community. The news of his death was transmitted to Shoghi Effendi by the Baha’is in London. It was not until much later, when the cables were sent regarding the ‘expelling’ of both brothers that Shoghi Effendi, among other things, said that they had both gone abroad without his permission.

Since the family knew that he suffered from a disposition to being hot tempered, they had to be very careful to behave in a manner both befitting his position as Guardian, as well as to avoid provoking his ire that could easily boil over.(1) To put it simply, the atmosphere in the family was not one of ease and general wellbeing as they all strove to work in the service of the Cause and its Guardian, but rather one of tension and pressure to be and behave in a manner pleasing to Shoghi Effendi. Having opinions that differed from his, expressing any ideas that deviated from what he considered right or correct, interpreting anything in ways that he disapproved of, these all put everyone, maybe even he himself, under pressure and tension — pressure and tension from which there was no escape for the family, and which, maybe, he dealt with by finding reasons to ‘expel’ those who bothered his somewhat exaggerated need for obedience and acquiescence to his guidance. Again I say ‘maybe’ because, though he was my uncle, and I was his niece, I had not seen him since I was a child of seven or eight, I was not on the scene, as my parents (and of course I as one of their two daughters) had been ‘expelled’ and all I have to go on are the stories that I have very often heard from members of the family. However, when it came to opposition to marriages, it becomes very personal and first hand. When Shoghi Effendi heard that his cousin, Hassan Shahid was planning to marry me, his niece, he sent a message to Hassan’s mother Rouha Khanum, his aunt, with Dr. Lutfulla Hakim, a prominent Bahai, and member of the Hands of the Cause. Upon his arrival at her home at No. 9 Persian Street (adjoining Shoghi Effendi’s residence at No. 7) he told Hassan that he had a message from Shoghi Effendi and that he wished to see her alone. Worried that the news would prove too big a shock for her frail nervous condition, Hassan asked Dr. Lotfolla to take her condition into consideration, when giving her the message, because she was already shaking with anxiety as to what this visit and this message meant. It soon became clear. Shoghi Effendi’s message was that if her son Hassan married me, he would not allow any Baha’is to walk in her funeral when she died! This, over a decade after Shoghi Effendi had ‘expelled’ her and all her family, which made it impossible for any Baha’is to walk in her funeral anyway! I wonder what reasoning in Shoghi Effendi’s mind made it necessary for him to oppose this marriage. Whatever real reasons he had, neither I, nor Hassan, or our respective families, have learnt. For all of us, it simply cast a shadow that we could have done without, reminding us that even when cast out of the Cause, the Guardian expected obedience to dictates from afar, issued by someone who neither accepted us as members of the community nor granted us any recognition of basic human rights. Even as outcasts we had to go on being ‘guided’, ordered and punished for ‘sins’ known only to him. For us only the uprooting, the severance, the shunning and the pain. I wish I knew what it meant to him.

Looking back, decades later, I can only speculate. Now in my mid eighties, married to a man who is the last surviving grandson of the Master [note: this article was written before Hassan Shahid passed away], we often wonder. Could Shoghi Effendi have been looking back on the experiences of Baha’u’llah with his half brother Subhi Azal, and the Master with his half brothers, and thought that the pattern of conflicts, claims and counter claims were inevitable and therefore should be nipped in the bud before they could develop? If that were the case how could he have overlooked the fact that in the first two generations it was the brothers who created the problems, for whatever reasons, and who gave reason to Baha’u’llah and the Master to start the painful story of covenant breaking. The family of Shoghi Effendi raised no flags of dissent, did not accuse him of anything, sought to serve the Cause in whatever capacity they could and imprinted it on the minds of three ensuing generations that nothing should be done by the family that would in any way harm the Cause. In fact this became such a mantra, such a symbol of faith and faithfulness to the Cause of Baha’u’llah that all concepts of fairness, justice and simple human dignity were thrown to the winds and the family, over thirty in number, accepted the humiliation and the pain as a sacrifice to the Faith. In spite of accusations directed at his sisters, Rouhanguise and Mehranguise and his cousin Soraya of being faithless and disobedient to Shoghi Effendi in marrying the sons of Seyed Ali Afnan and Forough Khanum (the daughter of Baha’u’llah); of accusations against all the excommunicated members of the family of turning to Islam; of marrying a Moslem, as in the case of Munib Shahid; or a ‘low born Christian woman’, as in the case of his brother Hussein (see Taherzadeh’s book mentioned above), no one, but no one, responded, defended themselves or in any way sought to put matters right.

They swallowed their pride, disregarded their dignity, suffered humiliation, ‘expulsion’, and the strange absurdity of some Baha’is claiming that ‘no family existed’ — in spite, for example, of the loads of information about the family in Ruhiyyih Khanum’s book The Priceless Pearl and Adib Taherzadeh’s book The Covenant of Baha’u’llah. This in addition to the answer given by the latter to a question by Pauline Smith(2) of Masterton, New Zealand when she met him in Manchester in 1994 and asked him about the possibility of the return of a member of the family to the fold, which was to the effect that the decision had not yet been made as to what to do about the family of Shoghi Effendi (from a letter written by Pauline Smith to the House of Justice on the 10th of September 1996). I personally once received an email reverently asking me whether I was a member of the ‘holy family’. Needless to say, that query went unanswered, but…

Life is strange, and over the decades, the myth of the ‘faithless relatives of Shoghi Effendi’ was perpetuated, written about in Baha’i books and articles, and accepted as truth derived from an ‘infallible’ source. According to the official Baha’i line the family as such was driven into oblivion and extinction, and the myth culminated in the putting forth of the legend that Ruhiyyih Khanum was the only surviving member of Baha’u’llah’s family. (See the invitation extended on November 11, 1993, in honour of Madam Ruhiyyih Rabbani, ‘the last surviving member of the family of Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i faith’ by the senior partner of a firm of solicitors in London, published in The Independent newspaper of London dated November 9, 1993.)

Truth, they say, can be stranger than fiction, but in this sad and sorry saga, where is the truth and what is fiction?

Of course ‘expulsion’ was not limited to the family. In fact, the very first members of the community that Shoghi Effendi saw fit to grace with that title was Abbas Gholi and his wife. This gentleman, good looking and well dressed, was a man of some means who had purchased land on the slopes of Mount Carmel and which he had donated to the Cause. He and his wife, who were childless, had chosen certain roles for themselves in the community. He distilled homemade rose water, and had taken it upon himself to stand at the door of the Shrine of the Bab on the days that meetings were held there, and to sprinkle some on the hands of the visitors who would proceed to refresh their faces with the ‘golab’ before entering the Shrine. His wife had taken it upon herself to cook and serve a very typically Iranian soup called Asheh Reshteh (thick with beans and noodles and beautifully spiced) which she served to all comers on the five days (Ayyamiha) preceding the 19 days of fasting in March. Why these people were expelled I do not know, but they were the first to be thus ‘graced/disgraced’. I have heard it said that maybe if some members of the family or prominent Baha’is had raised the point or discussed it with Shoghi Effendi, then maybe it would not have become a habit to which he reverted so often. But then the reverence and deference in which he was held, or maybe, simply, the fear of offending the Guardian and suffering the same fate themselves, seems to have stopped anyone from making such a move.

Short or secondary as the story of the family of Shoghi Effendi might be, there is a debt owed to Baha’u’llah and Abdul Baha. It goes without saying that they both suffered a great deal as a result of the conflicts with their respective brothers. In relation to the third generation, I feel it a shame that their illustrious names should in any way be associated with a record that leaves so much to be desired by way of accuracy. At least let us give it the dignity of a simple, straightforward hearing, at which a side that has so far gone unheard, unseen and unknown gets a chance to put forth its story, in the light of Shoghi Effendi’s cables, sent to various Spiritual Assemblies and made public on the internet by official Baha’i sources.

My husband, Hassan Shahid, very seriously asked Dr. Moojan Momen to arrange for him to meet some members of the House of Justice, where he would be able to present the case of the family ‘expellees’, just as a matter of historical record. Dr. Momen closed the door on that one, saying that that was not possible.

Addendum: Hassan Shahid, the last of the thirteen grandchildren of the Master, Abdul Baha, died on the 23rd of June 1915. Having gone to meet his maker, as we are all destined to do, maybe now he will be able make the case so dear to his heart and plead the causes of justice and fairness which he so firmly believed in.

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Notes:

(1) One example that comes to mind is the incident that occurred at the train station of Lausanne with his cousin Qudsi Onsi, who was travelling with him. That day they were setting out for a long hike in the mountains. Shoghi Effendi made it a rule for himself and his travelling companions to eat only once a day, at dinner time. Qudsi had been hungry that day and had secretly hidden a sandwich in his pocket or rucksack. When Shoghi Effendi noticed he went for Qudsi with his walking stick, attracting the attention of the police. Qudsi quickly assured them that it was just a game and no harm was intended. That saved the situation, but it is a good example of hot temper boiling over.

(2) Pauline Smith was a student of my daughter Parvine Shahid at the Montessori Training College in London. She told my daughter that she had converted to the Baha’i Faith. In the circumstances Parvine thought it was only fair to tell Pauline who she was and that as a Baha’i she was not supposed to befriend her. The story however, does not end there. Pauline had been suffering from liver cancer while in England. She therefore decided to go back home to New Zealand where she eventually recovered. From there she had contacted the House of Justice in Haifa, regarding the possibility of having Parvine’s request to return to the Cause accepted. The answers had been negative and they came with the order that she was to sever all relations with Parvine who had gone to Masterton to work at a Montessori school that was being planned there. Pauline achieved some notoriety as a result of her difficulty in considering Parvine a covenant breaker and therefore an undesirable who should be ‘shunned’, as the House of Justice required. Finding this hard to obey, she was eventually ‘expelled’.