Rúhíyyih Khanum

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Amatu'l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum
Rúhíyyih Khánum
Born Mary Maxwell
08, August 1910
New York City
Died January 19, 2000
Haifa, Israel
Nationality Canadian
Religion Bahá'í Faith
Parent(s) Father: William Maxwell
Mother: May Maxwell

Amatu'l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum (August 8, 1910 – January 19, 2000), born as Mary Sutherland Maxwell in New York but raised in Montreal, was the wife of Shoghi Effendi, who was the head of the Bahá'í Faith from 1921–1957. She was appointed by him as a Hand of the Cause, and served an important role in the transfer of authority from 1957–1963. In 2004, CBC viewers voted her number 44 on the list of "greatest Canadians" on the television show The Greatest Canadian.[1]

She was also a noted speaker from her teens and lectured frequently on the impacts of racism and prejudice. A prolific writer since her youth, Rúhíyyih Khánum was the author of several published books such as Prescription for Living and The Priceless Pearl. After Shoghi Effendi died in 1957, for Bahá'ís she became the last remaining link to the family of `Abdu'l-Bahá, who headed the Faith from 1892 to 1921 and was the eldest son of the Faith's Founder, Bahá'u'lláh.

Early life[edit]

Mary aged 16 during her second pilgrimage

Rúhíyyih Khánum was born in New York City on August 8, 1910 to William Sutherland Maxwell and May Maxwell,[2] and was raised in Montreal, Québec where her father was a prominent architect. Through her father, Mary was of Scottish ancestry.[2] The family originated from Aberdeen and Jedburgh. Through her mother, she was primarily of English stock. In 1912 `Abdu'l-Bahá visited Canada and stayed in the Maxwell's home. There he met Mary, aged two, and described her as the "essence of sweetness".[3] `Abdu'l-Bahá showed much affection to baby Mary.[4]

Her mother wanted to give Mary an education that was free of the rigidity of the traditional educational methods in the country, and established the first Montessori school in Canada at their residence, and Mary attended the school.[2] Maxwell began reading and writing at a young age and her pastimes included writing poetry, novels and plays.[5] She spoke English, French, German and Persian fluently.[2] During her youth she twice traveled to the Bahá'í World Centre in Palestine for pilgrimage – the first with her mother and the second with her mother's friends aged sixteen. It was during these pilgrimages that she first met Shoghi Effendi, then head of the Bahá'í Faith. After her trips she also engaged in many youth activities in the Bahá'í community, and traveled around the world teaching the Bahá'í Faith.[2]

In her youth Maxwell was engaged in many Bahá’í youth activities.[5] At the age of 15 she joined the Executive Committee of the Fellowship of Canadian Youth for Peace.[5] She was also involved in local racial equality conventions including dances.[6] A spectator – one of the first African-American Bahá’ís[6] – Sadie Oglesby described her as "sixteen-year-old Mary Maxwell, a beautiful and most refreshing girl to know".[6] By twenty-one she was elected to the local Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Montreal, the local Bahá'í governing council there.[5] Rúhíyyih Khánum was heavily involved in ecology and environmental issues, being a co-founder of the organization Alliance of Religions and Conservation which is an interfaith organisation aimed at assisting the major religions of the world to develop environmental programmes based on their own core teachings, beliefs and practices.[citation needed]


As a young woman, Mary had expressed a great desire to learn Spanish. However, her plans to travel to Spain were thwarted with the conflict in the country during the mid-1930s. Instead Mary chose to live with her cousin in Germany in 1935, a move which was endorsed by Shoghi Effendi. In Germany, Shoghi Effendi encouraged Mary to strengthen the fledgling Bahá’í community. The young Mary assimilated herself in German culture, wearing a dirndl and learned German fluently.

Whilst in Germany Mary received an invitation from Shoghi Effendi to make a pilgrimage with her mother. Mother and daughter accepted the invitation. They were initially planning on travelling through the Balkans and visit the Bahá’ís, however the unrest of the area forced them to travel directly to Haifa.


She had spent long periods of time with Shoghi Effendi prior to marrying, having first met him when she was 12 years of age. She made another pilgrimage three years later and after kept in constant communication with Shoghi Effendi. Arriving in Haifa in January of 1937 with her mother, the two began a brief and discreet courtship. In February the couple were engaged, and Mary cabled her father to come as soon as he could to Haifa. On March 24

at the age of 26, Mary married Shoghi Effendi in a low-key ceremony. It was at this time that Shoghi Effendi entitled her "Amatu'l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum" ("Amatu'l-Bahá" means "Handmaiden of Glory".) The official marriage announcement was sent by Shoghi Effendi’s mother Díyá’íyyih which proclaimed to the Bahá’í world:

Announce Assemblies celebration marriage beloved Guardian. Inestimable honour conferred upon handmaid of Bahá'u'lláh Ruhiyyih Khanum Miss Mary Maxwell. Union of East and West proclaimed by Bahá'í Faith cemented. Ziaiyyih mother of Guardian.

As Rúhíyyih was getting use to life as a resident in the east, the newlyweds made a trip to Switzerland and Shoghi Effendi introduced his young bride to his favourite sights in the country. It was initially difficult for her to adjust herself in her new home and she suffered periods of loneliness and homesickness. With the encouragement of Shoghi Effendi, she studied the Bible and the Quran and started learning Persian. She later became fluent in the language and was able to deliver talks in Persian. In a letter to her mother a year after her marriage she wrote that "if anyone asked me what my theme was in life I should say, ‘Shoghi Effendi’". The couple became constant companions of one another and Shoghi Effendi later described her as his “shield” and “companion” and his “tireless collaborator”. Shoghi Effendi and Rúhíyyih Khánum never had children.

Appointed Positions[edit]

Almost immediately after their marriage, she served as the Guardian's secretary, and then in 1941 until 1957 she served as Shoghi Effendi's principal secretary in English.[2] In 1951 she was appointed to the International Bahá'í Council, which was an administrative institution of the Bahá'í Faith created as a precursor to the Universal House of Justice, to act as a liaison between the Council and Shoghi Effendi.[7] Later on March 26, 1952, she was appointed to the office of Hand of the Cause of God – a distinguished rank in service to the religion[8] – for which she attended to issues related to the propagation and protection of the religion.[2]

After Shoghi Effendi died in 1957, she became for Bahá'ís the last remaining link to the family of `Abdu'l-Bahá, who headed the Faith from 1892 to 1921 and was the eldest son of the Faith's Founder, Bahá'u'lláh.

Ministry of the Custodians[edit]

In 1957 her husband, Shoghi Effendi, died without having appointed a successor. Rúhíyyih Khánum was among the 27 Hands of the Cause who stewarded the religion for the six-year interim, before the Universal House of Justice was scheduled to be elected in 1963. The Hands voted among themselves for nine individuals to work at the Bahá'í World Centre to run the administration of the Faith, a position to which Rúhíyyih Khánum was elected; these nine were designated the Custodians.[9][10] During this time she worked on assuring the completion of the ten-year international teaching plan which was launched by Shoghi Effendi in 1953.[2] Upon the election of the Universal House of Justice in 1963, the ending point of Shoghi Effendi's ten-year plan, the nine Hands acting as interim head of the Faith closed their office.[9]


Resting place

From 1957 until her death Rúhíyyih Khánum traveled to over 185 countries and territories working with the world's several million Bahá'ís; she especially encouraged members of indigenous peoples to participate in the global Bahá'í community.[2] Her travels took her to all the continents and to small islands; some of her travels involved extended stays. For four years she traveled for 58,000 kilometers in a Landrover through sub-Saharan Africa, visiting 34 countries, of which in 19 she was received by the head of state. On another trip she visited nearly 30 countries in Asia and the Pacific islands during a seven-month span.[2] From January to March 1970 she crossed Africa from east to west, driving 2/3 of the distance herself, visiting many country's communities, meeting with individuals and institutions both Bahá'í and civic.[11]

In 1975–6 she travelled by boat through the tributaries of the Amazon River of Brazil and also visiting the high mountain ranges of Peru and Bolivia. Thirty six tribal groups were visited over a period of six months; the trip was called The Green Light Expedition,[12][13][14] which followed Khanum's The Great African Safari.[15] There have also been projects developed from the original expedition – In the Footsteps of the Green Light Expedition[16] and Tear of the Clouds.[17]

During her travels she was received by the following heads of state and government; Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia; Malietoa Tanumafili II of Western Samoa; Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India; President Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Côte d'Ivoire; President Carlos Menem of Argentina; Prime Minister Edward Seaga of Jamaica; and Javier Pérez de Cuellar, Secretary-General of the United Nations.[2]


Rúhíyyih Khánum died on January 19, 2000 at the age of 89 in Haifa, Israel and her resting place is at the Bahá'í World Centre.[2]

Publications and productions[edit]

Rúhíyyih Khánum was also an author; she wrote several books including The Priceless Pearl, which is a biography of Shoghi Effendi;[18] Twenty-Five Years of the Guardianship;[19] Prescription for Living, which discussed the application of spiritual principles to one's life.[20] She was also the editor of the book The Ministry of the Custodians.[21] She produced two full-length documentary films: The Green Light Expedition and The Pilgrimage

See also[edit]


  1. ^ CBC (2004). "The Greatest Canadian – Top 100 – 11 to 100". CBC.ca. Archived from the original on 2008-04-20. Retrieved 2008-07-05. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l "Amatu'l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum (1910–2000)". Bahá'í Community of Canada. Retrieved 2008-07-05. 
  3. ^ Nakhjavani, Violette (2000). Tribute to Amatu'l-Baha Rúhíyyih Khánum, A. Bahá'í Canada Publications & Nine Pines Publishing, Ottawa, Canada. ISBN 0-88867-105-9. 
  4. ^ Thompson, Juliet (1983). The Diary of Juliet Thompson. Los Angeles: Kalimat Press. 
  5. ^ a b c d "Madame Rúhíyyih Rabbáni, leading Bahá'í dignitary, passes away in Haifa". One Country: Online Newsletter of the Bahá'í International Community. 
  6. ^ a b c Etter-Lewis, Gwendolyn (2006). Lights of the Spirit: Historical Portraits of Black Baha'is in North America, 1898–2000. Baha'i Publishing Trust. p. 80. ISBN 1-931847-26-6. 
  7. ^ Smith, Peter (2000). "Rúhíyyih Khánum, Amatu'l-Bahá". A concise encyclopedia of the Bahá'í Faith. Oxford: Oneworld Publications. pp. 299–300. ISBN 1-85168-184-1. 
  8. ^ Compilations (1983). Hornby, Helen (Ed.), ed. Lights of Guidance: A Bahá'í Reference File. Bahá'í Publishing Trust, New Delhi, India. p. 322. ISBN 81-85091-46-3. 
  9. ^ a b Taherzadeh, Adib (2000). The Child of the Covenant. Oxford, UK: George Ronald. pp. 368–371. ISBN 0-85398-439-5. 
  10. ^ Vafai, Shahin (2005). "Chapter 5". The Essence of the Covenant. Riviera Beach, Fl: Palabra Publications. ISBN 1-890101-27-3. 
  11. ^ "Hand of the Cause of God Rúhíyyih Khánum Travels Six Thousand Miles Across Africa". Bahá'í News (209): p. 3–18. June 1970. 
  12. ^ Amatu'l-Baha Rúhíyyih Khánum (2000). The Green Light Expedition (film, remastered DVD). National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Canada. 
  13. ^ Bahá'í International Community (2003-11-28). "Standing up for the oneness of humanity". Bahá'í World News Service (Cuidad Colon, Costa Rica). 
  14. ^ Sadan, Mark (2007). "Mark Sadan – photographer, filmaker, U.S.A". BAFA Newsletter (Bahá'í Association for the Arts & Arts Dialogue). 
  15. ^ Palin, Iain S. (2002). "Book Review" (PDF). Bahá'í Journal of the Bahá'í Community of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United Kingdom) 19 (2). Retrieved 2014-02-26. 
  16. ^ Beers, Karim (2007). "EBBF Profile: Neissan Alessandro Besharati: Flowing Together—Sustainability, Interconnectedness and Income-generation in the Amazon". INSPIRE (European Bahá’í Business Forum) (16). Retrieved 2010-12-07. 
  17. ^ Sadan, Mark; Kelly, Rebecca. "Tear of the Clouds". Market Group Ventures Inc. Retrieved 2008-03-09. 
  18. ^ Rabbani, R. (1969). The Priceless Pearl (Hardcover ed.). London, UK: Bahá'í Publishing Trust: 2000. ISBN 1-870989-91-0. 
  19. ^ Rabbani, R. (1948). Twenty-Five Years of the Guardianship. Wilmette, Illinois, USA: Bahá'í Publishing Trust. 
  20. ^ Rabbani, R. (1978). Prescription for Living. George Ronald. ISBN 0-85398-003-9. OCLC 7260143. 
  21. ^ Rabbani, R., ed. (1992). The Ministry of the Custodians 1957–1963. Bahá'í World Centre. ISBN 0-85398-350-X. 


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