January 23, 2000
Ruhiyyih Rabbani, Leader in Bahai Faith, Dies at 89
By DOUGLAS MARTINRuhiyyih Rabbani, who became the pre-eminent member of the Bahai faith after the death of her husband, the last official leader of the faith, died Wednesday in her home in Haifa, Israel. She was 89.
The Bahais, who number more than five million and believe in the unity of all religions and the oneness of humanity, emerged in Iran in the mid-19th century. Mirza Hoseyn, known as Baha Ullah, meaning Glory of God, is considered the religion's founder.
His great-grandson and Rhiyyih Rabbani's husband was Shoghi Effendi Rabbani -- known to Bahais simply as Shoghi Effendi.
Since his death in 1957, the Bahais have been governed by a legislature.
Mrs. Rabbani, a tall woman with striking blue eyes, has nonetheless been treated as a link with Bahai's spiritual roots and accorded special respect.
"She was totally venerated by millions of people," said Dr. Firuz Kazemzadeh, a Bahai and former professor of Russian at Yale. "There grew up over the years an adoration for her, unlike anybody else in the Bahai community."
Frank Lewis, a Bahai and professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Yale University, said that pilgrims to Haifa, the center of the Bahai faith, regularly sought out Mrs. Rabbani, who almost always wore a head scarf to fit in with Muslim women in Haifa. "People treated her recollections and interpretations of doctrine with a special degree of reverence," he said.
They were at least equally impressed with what Mr. Lewis termed her charisma. "She was the last of the grand old dames," he said.
On a Web site for Bahai women (www.bahaiwomen.com), a message was posted on the day of her death: "Today is such a sad day -- we lost the lady of ladies."
Mary Sutherland Maxwell was born in New York in 1910 and was the only child of William Sutherland Maxwell, a Canadian architect, and his American wife, May Bolles. Victoria Jones, a spokeswoman for the American Bahais, said that Mrs. Maxwell was frail and might have come to New York to give birth as a medical precaution.
The Maxwells were prominent Bahais and visited Haifa several times. Their daughter met her future husband as a little girl. On a family visit a few years later the parents were surprised, to put it mildly, when Mr. Rabbani asked for her hand.
There had been no dating, but neither was the marriage arranged. "The impression one gets is that he sort of knew her and decided that it was time that he should get married," Mr. Lewis said.
Her family's roots in the faith were unusually deep for Americans, which may have made the East-West match more likely.
Shoghi Effendi's grandfather, Abd ol-Baha, who preceded him as head of the faith, met Mrs. Rabbani's grandmother in 1898 when she visited Haifa with a dozen Bahais. It was the first group of Western Bahais to visit Haifa, and included Phoebe Hearst, mother of William Randolph Hearst.
Mrs. Rabbani worked tirelessly as her husband's researcher and secretary, drafting hundreds of letters in response to theological queries. He would suggest what he wanted to say, she would put it into words, and he would correct it. Many letters ended with a handwritten note from Shoghi Effendi. Mr. Kazemzadeh emphasized that theological books were entirely Shoghi Effendi's work.
The couple had no children, and a direct descendant would not necessarily have become head of the faith anyway; Abd ol-Baha had skipped a generation to appoint Shoghi Effendi.
But Shoghi Effendi did appoint a group of 30 Bahais to become what the religion calls Hands of the Cause. They elected nine of their number to run the religion until a permanent council, called the Universal House of Justice, could be established in 1963. Mrs. Rabbani was one of the nine "hands" selected. Although she had no more standing than her colleagues, historians suggest she automatically had more influence.
At the same time, there was also a deep loneliness. Though she filled up the years working for environmental causes and traveling the world to promote Bahai, frequently meeting with heads of state, acquaintances say she always missed her husband. She wrote a biography about him called "The Priceless Pearl" and a small book of very sad poems.
"She grieved inside, but you wouldn't have known about it unless you read those poems," Mr. Kazemzadeh said. "She was a very strong person."
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