Shoghi Effendi in Oxford
Author: Riaz Khadem
Publisher: George Ronald, Oxford, 1999, 173 pages
Her Eternal Crown, Queen Marie of Romania and the Bahá'í Faith
Author: Della L. Marcus
Publisher: George Ronald, Oxford, 1999, 319 pages
Reviewer: Lil Abdo
It is always a pleasure to see the publication of new literature concerning the history of the Bahá'í Faith in the west. It is especially welcome when the subject matter has not previously been the subject of full scholastic scrutiny. It is undeniable that there is a need for a scholarly biography of Shoghi Effendi but sadly Shoghi Effendi in Oxford does not answer this need. In his preface, Khadem points out that his research "had produced only fragments, tiny pieces of information not sufficient to make a book" and in this he is quite correct. His research has produced some interesting information, but as he fails to analyse it or place it in context it remains hidden amongst gratuitous information and long extracts from published sources. He states in the introduction that the book is aimed at ordinary Bahá'ís and consequently written in a simple style using Bahá'í terminology. In fact it is written in what comes across as Bahá'í-jargon, which would reduce even the most objective biography to hagiography.
The book starts with a introductory background to Shoghi Effendi, which closely follows Rœhíyyih Khánum's biography Priceless Pearl and, despite interviews with Dr Mo'ayyid in 1970, it adds little new information. Mo'ayyid recalled Shoghi Effendi's happiness at transferring from the Catholic boarding school in Beirut to the Syrian Protestant College, thus confirming his unhappiness at the former establishment documented in Priceless Pearl. However, no comment is made to enlighten the reader about the cause of his unhappiness. In describing Shoghi Effendi's time at the Syrian Protestant College, Khadem produces a number of lists. He lists the courses Shoghi Effendi took and the terms in which he took them, the names of the professors and their assistants who taught the courses, and the names of the people who graduated with Shoghi Effendi and the towns from which they came. The problem is that as he gives no indication to the relative importance of these individuals to his subject, we are left unaware of any influence they may have had or what role they played. Whilst this raw data might prove useful to later researchers and as such could have formed an appendix, in its present form it is no more enlightening than listing the people with whom he shared a dentist or waited for a bus. In the period between his leaving the Syrian Protestant College and going up to Oxford, Shoghi Effendi worked for `Abdu'l-Bahá translating tablets and supplications. Again we are supplied with lists of recipients of tablets but with no indication to their importance. Where the content of the tablet is reproduced it may tell us something about `Abdu'l-Bahá or the recipient, but nothing about the translator. A large part of this section comprises diary letters of Shoghi Effendi published in Star of the West. Although, these provide a fascinating insight into the activities of `Abdu'l-Bahá, they shed no light on their author as they are purely descriptive. The only insightful comment is about Shoghi Effendi rather than from him, when `Abdu'l-Bahá's comments to Dr Fallscheer are reproduced from Priceless Pearl.
The move to Oxford generally changes the pace of the narrative for the better, and introduces new material. Even so, the author fails to point out the strong connection between the Persian literati and Oxford that originated from the sending of Persian students to western universities by Nasru'd-Din Shah. Khadem points out that Oxford had been "blessed by the footsteps of the Master" (which is "Bahá'í-speak" for `Abdu'l-Bahá went there), but he does not mention that `Abdu'l-Bahá went there to meet Professor Thomas Cheyne, and later the same day, to address Manchester College. Eminent members of Manchester College were Philip Wicksteed and Estlin Carpenter. The latter was married to a prominent Bahá'í, Alice Buckton, and therefore Carpenter was well aware of Bahá'í movement. [For more information on Buckton, see page 129 in this issue - Eds.] In his Essex Hall lecture of 1895 Carpenter had discussed the Bab and the Babi movement at length and in a footnote to the published transcript he adds, "The late Master of Balliol once told me that he thought Babism might prove the most important religious movement since the foundation of Christianity."
Although Cheyne was dead and Carpenter retired by the time Shoghi Effendi was in Oxford, it is clear that the choice of Oxford University for his studies was far from random. However, the lack of contacts less than a decade later indicates a decline in Bahá'í influence in academic circles. Shoghi Effendi's admittance to Balliol College was not straightforward. Khadem uncovers his original registration was in a non-college institution affiliated to the university known as the non-collegiate delegacy. He reproduces letters from Shoghi Effendi indicating his concern and anxiety about his failure to gain entry to Balliol, as well as correspondence between the college and the non-collegiate delegacy. It would seem that Shoghi Effendi was the hapless victim of administrative incompetence and university bureaucracy a situation with which many can empathise. His reaction to this situation and his perseverance in the face of adversity are a fascinating insight into the character of the man who would become Guardian. No less fascinating are the memoirs of Shoghi Effendi's contemporaries at Balliol. Khadem approached 205 men who went up to Balliol between 1918 and 1921, and received 135 replies of which 52 contained information or recollections. These form the most interesting part of the book. These Balliol men, none of whom were or became Bahá'ís, offer a unique picture of Shoghi Effendi. In one of the few passages of analysis, Khadem speculates on the difficulties Shoghi Effendi would have faced fitting in with the English upper class ethos of Oxford. This indeed must have puzzled him as none of the British Bahá'ís were Oxonians and only Esslemont a university graduate. It is a pity that so few of these reminiscences are reproduced or discussed.
For the rest of the description of Shoghi Effendi's stay in England, Khadem relies mainly on published sources, arranged in a chronological narrative that will be interesting reading for his target audience of "ordinary believers." The final chapter is simply repetition. For some reason the Bahá'í jargon is even denser in this chapter and it is liberally sprinkled with "radiant youth," "beloved" this and thats. Why Bahá'í authors still insist on using this type of language is beyond me if they think it adds dignity either to their work or its subject they are mistaken it just sounds peculiar. Overall this book has the feel of diligent research hurriedly edited into an overlong book with too much padding.
It is interesting to consider how in the early years of the last century the Bahá'í teachings spread in so many environments. For different reasons and by different means, Khadem discusses how people become aware of things Bahá'í in Oxford colleges, and Della Marcus in Her Eternal Crown, Queen Marie of Romania and the Bahá'í Faith explores how the religion first came to attention in the royal palaces of the Balkans. I must confess that prior to reading this book I was woefully ignorant of the story of Queen Marie. I had encountered the denial of her involvement in the Bahá'í Faith by her daughter, Princess Ileana, in William Miller's book The Bahá'í Faith: its history and teachings. This caused me to peruse the index of a couple of biographies of the queen and finding no mention of the Bahá'í Faith therein, conclude that the queen had probably made a few polite remarks in response to overtures from Bahá'ís. Consequently, I relegated Queen Marie, along with Cher and Mr Spock, to the netherworld of Bahá'ís whose credentials are entirely composed of the wishful thinking of Bahá'ís. However, Della Marcus' book totally refutes any denial of Queen Marie's involvement with Bahá'ís. It is somewhat odd then that it does not mention the fact that these denials exist. This gives the book a rather unbalanced stance and does not allow the author to develop the thesis. Had Marcus started by pointing out that critics of the Faith had dismissed Queen Marie's involvement and that most biographers had ignored it, it would have given her the opportunity to discuss some very interesting questions. Questions such as: why should Princess Ileana, herself once very interested in the Bahá'í cause, make such a denial, or if Queen Marie totally accepted the Bahá'í teachings (insofar as she understood them), did she ever reject Christianity of the authority of the Church? The answers to these unspoken questions are curiously to be found in the introduction where the "evolutionary" process of the development of the modern Bahá'í Faith is explained but not related to the subject matter of the text. It is pointed out that the prior to the 1940's when incompatibility of membership of the Bahá'í Faith with other religious bodies was made clear many Bahá'ís had "dual memberships," but how that affected Queen Marie and Princess Ileana is not discussed. In my opinion the queen and her daughter totally accepted the Bahá'í movement, which was a supplementary religious movement requiring no conversion experience, but did not embrace the Bahá'í Faith as an independent religion.
Marcus, however, does not set out to provide analysis, but rather to reproduce the correspondence and diary entries concerning the queen's involvement with the Bahá'í teachings and with Martha Root. This she does admirably, although the text is sometimes repetitive when, for example, the same incident is described in a diary entry, a letter, and an article in Star of the West. The problem with this approach is that the reader is not given any kind of context or comparison, so whilst Queen Marie's acceptance of Bahá'í Faith, her relationship with Martha Root, and her desire to visit Shoghi Effendi are proved beyond doubt, there is no information about other interests she might have had did she, for example, also correspond with Theosophists or Christian Scientists?
The importance of this book is that no future biographer will be able to ignore the importance of the Bahá'í message in Queen Marie's life. Some interesting light is shed on the domestic life of European royalty in the first half of the last century. It does not seem to have been a pleasant existence, and Marie was subjected to restrictions, financial constraints and family dysfunction. Superficially the queen's friendship with Martha Root seems surprising, but Root must have been a wonderful antidote to the intrigues of the court. Root's "handling" of the queen is also interesting she reports directly to Shoghi Effendi and he intervenes directly only when required. His correspondence with Root indicates his trust in her abilities and the care with which they planned their relationship with the queen. It is no doubt significant that other Bahá'ís did not approach Queen Marie and that, on her tour of North America, the American Bahá'í community communicated with her only by sending flowers. Clearly the Queen's relationship with the Bahá'í Faith had to be carefully managed.
The role of kingship and Bahá'u'lláh's writings to kings and rulers are explained in the introduction, as well as the importance of monarchical acceptance of the Bahá'í Faith. This book will be useful in re-examining this aspect of the writings particularly in England where the House of Windsor has begun to look rather unsteady. Whilst the conversion of Saxon warlords might have worked for the Christian missionary saints, how useful would a strategy of canvassing royalty or the aristocracy be in a more egalitarian society? Overall this book makes a useful contribution to the literature on the history of the Bahá'í Faith. It allows its subjects to speak for themselves and, whilst it is short on analysis, it raises a number of interesting points that can be pursued in further work.