The Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith
EARLY YEARS OF THE GUARDIANSHIP
It is time to ask ourselves what manner of man this was who wrote such things about himself, what impression did he create, how did he appear to others?
From the diary of one of the American believers whom Shoghi Effendi called to Haifa, in March 1922, we have the following description: "... Shoghi Effendi appeared and greeted me most kindly and affectionately. I had not seen him for eight years, and of course I was surprised at the change and development in him, for instead of the boy I had known there was now a man very young in years but premature in poise and depth of spirit and thought ..." He goes on to describe his impressions of Shoghi Effendi: "As I used to sit at table looking at Shoghi Effendi, I was struck by his resemblance to the Master. In the shape and poise of his head, his shoulders, his walk and his general bearing. Then I felt the terrible weight and responsibility which had been placed upon that young boy. It seemed overwhelming that he, whose life was just starting, so to speak from the human worldly standpoint, should have had this great responsibility thrust upon him, a weight which would so consume him and place him aside by himself as to eliminate from his life the freedom and joy of the human side of life, which though not eternal, has a certain call for each of us human beings."
In 1929 an Indian Bahá'í pilgrim wrote of Shoghi Effendi: "We must understand Shoghi Effendi in order to be able to help him accomplish the stupendous task he has entrusted to us. He is so calm and yet so vibrant, so static and yet so dynamic." This is little short of a brilliant characterization of one aspect of the Guardian. The impression he created on the first American Bahá'í to be called to Haifa after the second World War, in 1947, reveals other aspects of his nature: "My first impression is of his warm, loving smile and handclasp, making me feel instantly at ease ... In the course of
these interviews, I was to become increasingly conscious of his many great qualities — his nobility, dignity, fire and enthusiasm — his ability to run the scale from sparkling humour to deep outrage, but always, always, putting the Bahá'í Faith ahead of everything ... In his practical, logical manner, Shoghi Effendi made me feel both a welcome guest and a needed helper, he outlined some of my duties which started the very next day! His advice, given me on that initial visit, was to overshadow all my efforts on his behalf; he said he wanted me to follow his instructions explicitly, if I was unsuccessful, or ran into difficulties, to report to him precisely and he would give me a new plan of action ... For the Bahá'ís working at the International Center, during this period at least, there was no special day of rest. It was then that one learned that each moment belonged to the Faith..." She then tells of those evenings when Shoghi Effendi shared with us at the dinner table special plans, cables and messages he was sending out and occasionally precious documents in his possession: "... Sparkling with excitement and new plans, he would produce messages and letters from his pockets, oftentimes pushing his dinner plate away untouched, calling for paper and pencil and thrill us all with his new ideas and hopes for the Bahá'ís to carry out ... The beloved Guardian disliked very much to have his picture taken, therefore any photographs extant do not reflect his true 'image'. In the first place, the emotions flowed so rapidly over his features that one would need a series to catch his many moods. It was a delight to see and hear him laugh ... he seemed to twinkle like a star when some plan had been successfully brought to a conclusion. His sense of humour was a joy! He was like a high mountain, strong, always there, but never conquered, filled with unexpected heights and depths ... he was extremely thorough and taught us all a new sense of perfection and attention to detail ... he was in close touch with the expenditure of all funds ... He was enthusiastically concerned with Bahá'í statistics ... We could never appreciate his grasp of all affairs connected with activities at the 'grass roots' right up to the World Center ... "
Professor Alaine Locke of Howard University in Washington, who was one of the Bahá'í pilgrims to visit Haifa during the first years of Shoghi Effendi's Guardianship, describes the impressions he received as he walked with Shoghi Effendi in the gardens of the Bab's Shrine: "Shoghi Effendi is a master of detail as well as of principle, of executive foresight as well as of projective vision. But I have never heard details so redeemed of their natural triviality as
when talking to him of the plans for the beautifying and laying out of the terraces and gardens. They were important because they all were meant to dramatize the emotion of the place and quicken the soul even through the senses."
Shoghi Effendi continually added to these gardens and their fame increased steadily. By the end of his life as many as 90,000 people a year were visiting them and the Shrine of the Bab. What one visitor wrote to him in 1935 expressed in the simplest terms the impression such a visit creates on many people; she had been "deeply impressed by the reticent beauty of the Shrines and by the happiness of the gardens."
It was his practice each year to enlarge the cultivated area around the Shrines of the Bab and 'Abdu'l-Bahá. No doubt the very first impulse in this direction came from his ever-conscious desire to follow in every field the wishes of his departed Master. He knew 'Abdu'l-Bahá had planned a series of terraces from the old German Colony up to the Bab's Sepulchre; indeed the Master had begun developing the first terrace. Shoghi Effendi set himself, over the years, to finish these and in the course of studying this plan he no doubt evolved a concept of his gardens around the Shrine — for gardens they are, not one garden. To understand and appreciate the extraordinarily beautiful effect Shoghi Effendi has created on Mt. Carmel and in Bahji one must know his method.
Shoghi Effendi studied the surrounding barren mountain side and began to develop, piece by piece, year after year, separate sections. With the exception of the terraces it must be borne in mind that he never had an over-all plan. This is what gives the gardens on Mt. Carmel their unique character. As he walked about Shoghi Effendi would get an idea for a piece of garden that fitted the topography of the land. With no fuss, no advice and no help except the unskilled farmers who did duty as gardeners, he would make his plan for this "piece". If necessary he would have the spot surveyed and curves or long lines laid out, but very often he dispensed with this and did it all himself.
It is hard to understand why most people do things so slowly when Shoghi Effendi did them so fast. Just to twitter faithfully that he was "guided by God" does not seem to me a sufficient explanation. I believe great people see things in great dimensions, little people get tripped up by little details. Shoghi Effendi, being truly great, having clearly in mind what he wanted to do, saw no reason why a lot of puny details such as that one usually gave instructions
to subordinates and let them go their own pace in carrying them out — should prevent him from getting the whole thing done, under his own eyes, in one operation. He organized it perfectly and it was accomplished immediately and perfectly; anything he could do himself was always done this way. The delays and frustrations usually occurred when he had to refer his work to others.
Shoghi Effendi had a faultless sense of proportion. It is the combination of this sense of proportion, and an originality unhampered by tradition or too much information that made his gardens so unique, so fascinating and beautiful. If he (so he claimed) lacked the power of visualizing a thing completed, he possessed to a strong degree the other creative faculty of the true artist, the capacity to let a thing shape up under his hands, to receive an inspiration in the middle of a plan and pursue the soaring course of that inspiration rather than be tied to the preconceived idea.
Shoghi Effendi — like the Master before him — was a great lover of light. He hated gloomy interiors. This love of bright light was so pronounced that I used to remonstrate with him for working with a powerful desk lamp practically shining in his eyes as I was afraid it was too much for them. His own room was always brilliantly lit, the Shrines were all full of lights, large and small, and one of his first acts as Guardian was to have placed over the door of the Bab's Shrine that faces the terraces and the straight avenue at the foot of the mountain that leads to the sea, a bright light. Gradually the gardens in both Haifa and Bahji were all illumined with beautiful four-branched wrought iron lamp posts, ninety-nine of them being erected in Bahji alone. When the night came that these were lighted for the first time, on the occasion of the Ridvan Feast in 1953, and we approached Bahji by car the sky glowed as if we were approaching a small city! The Guardian told the Persian pilgrims that it had always been light, but now it was "light upon light". (In the original there is a beautiful play of words alluding to Bahá'u'lláh as light.) In addition to this the Shrine in Haifa was illuminated at night by flood-lights, as were the resting-places of the Greatest Holy Leaf, and those of the mother and brother of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, and high-powered reflectors were ordered to illumine the International Archives Building. Shoghi Effendi came to grips with the harsh fact that he was to all intents and purposes alone and he placed increased reliance on himself. He set himself to do all the work and did it, using as secretaries various members of the Master's family, facing an ever-increasing
spirit of disaffection on their part, resigning himself to the unending drudgery of petty tasks as well as major ones, accepting his fate with resignation, often with despair, always with loyalty and fortitude. It can truly be said of him that single-handed he effected the world-wide establishment of the Faith of his Divine Forefathers and proved that he belonged to that same sovereign caste.
It was during these years, when Shoghi Effendi was trying so hard to gather about him a group of competent co-workers, that a crisis of unprecedented dimensions burst upon him. The sea of the Cause of God, whipped by the winds of both destiny and chance which blow upon it from the outside world, was now lashed into a storm whose waves beat remorselessly upon Shoghi Effendi's mind, his strength, his nerves and his resources. The blessed House occupied by Bahá'u'lláh in Bagdad, and ordained by Him, in Shoghi Effendi's words, as a "sacred, sanctified and cherished object of Bahá'í pilgrimage and veneration" had already in the days of 'Abdu'l-Bahá been seized by the Shi'ahs, after a series of nefarious manoeuvres, but had been returned by the British authorities to its legitimate custodians. When news of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's passing reached the inveterate enemies of the Faith, they once again renewed their attack and laid claim to the House; in 1922 the government had taken over the keys of the House in spite of the assurance of King Feisal that he would respect the claims of the Bahá'ís to a building that had been occupied by their representatives ever since Bahá'u'lláh's departure from Baghdad and who now, for political reasons, went back on his word; and in 1923, the keys had been most unjustly delivered again to the Shi'ahs. From shortly after the passing of 'Abdu'l-Bahá until November 1925 there had been a continuous struggle on the part of the Bahá'ís to protect the Most Holy House. The Shi'ahs had first taken the case to their own religious court from which it was speedily lifted out to the Peace court and then brought before the local Court of First Instance, which decided in favour of the rights of the Bahá'ís. This decision was then taken to the Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court of 'Iraq, which gave its verdict in favour of the Shi'ahs.
When the Guardian was informed of this flagrant miscarriage of justice he immediately mustered the Bahá'í world to take action: he sent nineteen cables to various individuals and national bodies comprising the believers in Persia, the Caucasus, Turkistan, 'Iraq, Japan, Burma, China, Turkey, Moscow, India, Australia, New
Zealand, Canada, the United States, Germany, Austria, France, Great Britain and the Pacific Islands. His instructions were that the Bahá'ís should cable and write their protest at this decision to the British High Commissioner in 'Iraq. Persia and North America — where the Bahá'í communities were numerically strong — were informed that in addition to every local Assembly voicing its protest directly, the National Assembly should not only contact the High Commissioner, but protest directly to both King Feisal of 'Iraq and the British authorities in London. The Assembly of India and Burma was likewise to protest to the King himself, but not to London. In places where the Bahá'ís were few in number, such as France and China, Shoghi Effendi advised that the protest should go over the signature of individuals. All these instructions markedly display the strategist in Shoghi Effendi. In his cables to the Bahá'í world he stated the situation was "perilous" and the "consequences of the utmost gravity"; all must request "prompt action to safeguard spiritual claims of Bahá'ís to this dearly-beloved Spot", "this sanctified abode", "Bahá'u'lláh's Sacred House". He put the proper phrases into the mouths of those he advised, the eastern friends being told to "fervently and courteously", "in firm considerate language", earnestly appeal "for consideration of their spiritual claims to its possession" and to the "British sense of justice", while the western believers were informed that "effective prompt action urgently required ... protesting vigorously against Court's glaring injustice, appealing for redress to British sense of fairness, asserting spiritual claims of Bahá'ís ... declaring their unfailing resolve to do their utmost to vindicate their legitimate and sacred rights." With his usual thoroughness Shoghi Effendi advised America that the messages sent by the local Assemblies "should not be identical in wording."
The exchange, during a six-month period, of well-nigh a hundred cables, in addition to a continual correspondence with various agents working to safeguard the Most Holy House, testify in bulk and substance to Shoghi Effendi's preoccupation with this problem. One of his first acts, on receiving the news of the decision of the Supreme Court, was to cable the High Commissioner in Bagdad that: "The Bahá'ís the world over view with surprise and consternation the Court's unexpected verdict regarding the ownership of Bahá'u'lláh's Sacred House. Mindful of their long-standing and continuous occupation of this property they refuse to believe that Your Excellency will ever countenance such manifest injustice.
They solemnly pledge themselves to stand resolutely for the protection of their rights. They appeal to the high sense of honour and justice which they firmly believe animates your Administration. In the name of the family of Sir 'Abdu'l-Bahá 'Abbas and the whole Bahá'í Community, Shoghi Rabbani". On the same day he cabled the heart-broken Keeper of Bahá'u'lláh's House: "Grieve not. Case in God's hand. Rest assured."
During the ensuing months many cables from Shoghi Effendi included such phrases as "House case should be strenuously pursued." He cabled a number of prominent non-Bahá'ís, and constantly coordinated the efforts of his lieutenants in different parts of the world. When over a month had passed Shoghi Effendi cabled various National Assemblies, instructing them to enquire in "courteous terms" from the High Commissioner "results of investigation" which the British authorities had promised to undertake. It was a losing battle, for the political and religious elements in 'Iraq had common cause and refused to bow to the pressure brought upon them, including that of the British Government.
Shoghi Effendi, however, did not accept defeat so lightly and never rested until the case of the Holy House was brought before the League of Nations Permanent Mandates Commission, in November 1928; the Mandatory Power had upheld the right of the Bahá'ís to the possession of the House, and the Mandates Commission recommended to the Council of the League of Nations that it request the British Government to make representations to the 'Iraqi Government to redress the denial of justice to the Bahá'ís in this case. The Bahá'ís continued to press the matter, from 1928 until 1933, but to no avail because the instruments for enforcing the decision were lacking and the power of the Shi'ahs inside 'Iraq was such as to cause the entire question to be dropped by the 'Iraqi Government, whenever that decision was pressed upon it.
A brief resume of events such as these conveys none of the day-to-day suspense that attends them, the fluctuations between hope and despair, the good news and bad news that alternate with each other and wear away the heart and strength. The first impact of the Supreme Court's decision had scarcely been received when Dr. Esslemont suddenly died. Coming at such a time of crisis the loss of his friend was a doubly grievous blow to the Guardian. So heavy was this burden that in February 1926 he wrote to one of the believers: "I am submerged in a sea of activities, anxieties and preoccupations. My mind is extremely tired and I feel I am
becoming inefficient and slow due to this mental fatigue." This condition became so acute that he was forced to go away for a brief rest. "The overwhelming burden of pressing cares and responsibilities", he wrote towards the end of March, "necessitated my departure at a time when ... I was most anxious to receive my friends and coworkers from various parts of the world". He must have been ill, indeed, to have absented himself from Haifa and his guests, but whatever his condition in February and March it was mild compared to that into which he was plunged by a wire from Persia, sent on April 11th, from Shiraz, which baldly stated: "Twelve friends in Jahrom martyred agitation may extend elsewhere," to which he replied the same day, "Horrified sudden calamity. Suspend activities. Appeal central authorities. Convey relatives tenderest sympathy". He also wired that same day to Tihran a message so significant of the spirit of the Faith that its conjunction with the events in Jahrum cannot be ignored: "I earnestly request all believers Persia Turkistan Caucasus participate whole-heartedly in renewal Spiritual Assemblies election. No true Bahá'í can stand aside. Results should be promptly forwarded Holy Land through central Assemblies communicate immediately with every centre. Proceed cautiously. Imploring Divine assistance." The following day, having received a more detailed wire from Shiraz advising that the chief instigator of the agitation there had been arrested and giving certain suggestions, Shoghi Effendi telegraphed Tihran: "Grief-stricken Jahrom martyrdom. Convey His Majesty on behalf all Bahá'ís and myself our profound appreciation his prompt intervention and our earnest entreaty to inflict immediate punishment on perpetrators of such atrocious crime. Urge all Persian Assemblies send similar message." It is a slight, but significant indication of his mental state, that in the first cables he spells "Jahrom" phonetically, but later switches to the transliterated "Jahrum".
What all this meant to Shoghi Effendi is expressed by him in a letter to one of his co-workers, written on the 24th of April. After acknowledging receipt of his many letters, he explains that his delay in answering them has been due to "my unfortunate illness, amounting almost to a break-down, combined with the receipt of the most distressing news from Persia reporting the martyrdom of twelve of our friends in the town of Jahrum, south of Shiraz. I have wired for full particulars and will communicate them to the various Bahá'í centres immediately I receive detailed information. Political considerations and personal rivalries appear to have played no
small part ... I have transmitted a message to the Shah through the Persian National Spiritual Assembly ... I have also requested foreign Assemblies to give in an unoffensive language full publicity to these reports in their respective newspapers, but have thought it premature for them to get into direct relation with the Shah..."
Yet in this state Shoghi Effendi managed to do what he thought could be done: "I feel that with patience, tact, courage and resource we can utilize this development to further the interests and extend the influence of the Cause." He had mustered the forces of the Bahá'í world in defence of the oppressed Persian Community, ensured that wide publicity in the foreign press be given to these martyrdoms, and constantly directed various National Assemblies in the action they should take in this respect as well as in the case of the Most Holy House.
Such is the tale of one period of the Guardian's life; how many blows rained on him in a little over six months, at a time when he was still struggling to get the load that had been placed on his shoulders at the time of the Master's passing properly balanced so that he could carry it!