August 4, 2011

The Greatest Holy Leaf: A Reminiscence – by ‘Ali Nakhjavani

(Excerpts from an address presented during the World Centre seminar commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the passing of the Greatest Holy Leaf, held in the reception concourse, permanent Seat of the Universal House of Justice, 17 July 1982.)

As we sit together in this gathering I am reminded of the fact that our beloved Guardian, Shoghi Effendi, speaks about the mystic bond that exists between the Greatest Holy Leaf and Baha'u'llah. Obviously this is so, for she was not only His daughter but was referred to by Him as the woman who has the highest rank among all women believers in the Baha'i dispensation, a station that none surpasses. Shoghi Effendi, basing himself on this statement, has named her the outstanding heroine of the Baha'i dispensation.

The Greatest Holy Leaf also had a mystic bond, as Shoghi Effendi describes the relationship, with her brother, 'Abdu'l-Baha, the Centre of the Covenant -- One Who not only knew her station and appointed her to be in total charge of His household, but Who entrusted her with the sacred remains of the Bab which were housed in her room for some ten years in the house of 'Abdu'llah Pasha, Who entrusted her with His last will and testament and Who realized that after His passing she would play a central role in the community, as He knew that Shoghi Effendi was not present at the time of His passing. We can be sure that 'Abdu'l-Baha passed away with His mind at rest, because He knew that Shoghi Effendi would soon be there, and that the Greatest Holy Leaf was there.

After the passing of 'Abdu'l-Baha the mystic bond between Shoghi Effendi and the Greatest Holy Leaf assumed far-reaching proportions. I am sure that future historians and other writers will write about the eleven years that passed from the night of the passing of 'Abdu'l-Baha to the night of the passing of the Greatest Holy Leaf.

The thought was borne in today, as I gazed at the friends assembled in this meeting in this majestic setting, that the House of Justice is beginning to forge its links and bonds with the Greatest Holy Leaf. Why? Following so close upon the fiftieth anniversary of her passing, the very first meeting in the permanent Seat of the Universal House of Justice is held in her name. The architect of this building, Mr. Husayn Amanat, today confirmed my recollection that he had deliberately designed the dome of this building to be reminiscent of the dome on the monument erected at the resting place of the Greatest Holy Leaf. If we compare these two domes we will see the resemblance in broad outline. He did so, he said, because of the well-known statement of Shoghi Effendi in which he likened the administrative order of the Faith of Baha’u’llah to the monument of the Greatest Holy Leaf, the dome representing the Universal House of Justice.

This building, itself, standing so close to her resting-place, caused me to reflect, as I stood outside: upon yet another symbolism. It is as though someone were standing with his arms outstretched in a semicircle, this arc, the world administrative seat of the Faith of Baha'u'llah, encircling the consecrated spot where these three precious souls are buried, the Greatest Holy Leaf, the Purest Branch and Navvab -- chief among them the Greatest Holy Leaf. Thus we are now witnessing the forging of bonds at the World Centre of the Faith between the Universal House of Justice and the Greatest Holy Leaf.

It is somewhat embarrassing to find myself speaking of my own recollections of the Greatest Holy Leaf. I came to the Holy Land in 1922 when I was two-and-a-half years old. The Greatest Holy Leaf passed away in 1932. Of course, I have no memories left of the first two or three years because I was too young, but a few memories have remained of the later years of that decade. I will, then, speak about this young child who has memories of being in the presence of the Greatest Holy Leaf. This child had a brother who was very close to him -- my brother Jalal who passed away in May of this year -- and the experiences which I relate were joint experiences. I am grateful to Baha'u'llah for having occasion to mention my brother's name here today.

The young child of whom I speak was born of a mother, Fatimih Khanum, who had spent her youthful life in service to the Greatest Holy Leaf, serving for some fifteen years, dating back to the time when the Master was in the house of 'Abdu'llah Pasha in 'Akka. Some of you may have met her sister, my aunt, Zeenat Baghdadi, who came to the Holy Land not long ago to give information relating to the restoration of the house of 'Abdu'llah Pasha. These two sisters, when they were young girls in 'Akka, nine and eleven years old, were accepted into the household of 'Abdu'l-Baha. My mother was chosen to serve the Greatest Holy Leaf for all those years. So in our family home we had many stories and feelings -- the feelings more important than the stories --about the Greatest Holy Leaf, and the way my mother felt about her. These things are in my background and are for you to visualize as I speak to you.

Speaking about this bond between Shoghi Effendi and the Greatest Holy Leaf, Zeenat, my aunt, used to say that in the house of 'Abdu'llah Pasha there used to be a parrot. The Greatest Holy Leaf used to take a mirror, hold it before the bird and bid it to say 'Yá Iláhí va Mahbúbí' ( O my God and my Beloved!) and to say 'Shoghi ján!' (Shoghi dear!) Early in the morning, at dawn, my aunt recalled, the household could hear the parrot crying 'Yá Iláhí va Mahbúbí' . . . Shoghi ján!' We have my aunt's voice on tape and I have tried to imitate that 'Shoghi jan!' with its high pitch.

During the period of the commission of investigation in the time of 'Abdu'l-Hamid, when grave problems confronted 'Abdu'l-Baha, it was necessary for the Master to conceal His Will and Testament. Although I have no evidence to support my belief, I am convinced that the only soul apart from 'Abdu'l-Baha who knew at that time who would be the Master's successor was the Greatest Holy Leaf. She was the depository of His secrets, so to speak.

When you visit the house of 'Abdu'llah Pasha you will be shown the room of the Greatest Holy Leaf. My aunt said that she had often wondered why it was that the Greatest Holy Leaf would sit on the mandar in that room, in utter silence, for hours on end. My aunt described my mother sitting at the feet of the Greatest Holy Leaf, also remaining silent and motionless, hour after hour. She said it was only later that she understood that it was because the remains of the Bab were in that room. If we wish to visualize it -- forgive my saying this but I am trying to make it understood -- it is as though we were asked to live and sleep in the Shrine of the Bab. Obviously, we can well imagine that the Greatest Holy Leaf lived in reverence, turning her heart to the Bab, realizing the sacred trust she had to protect for ten years in that room.

Zeenat used to explain to us that there were several things clearly visible in the life of the Greatest Holy Leaf in the house of 'Abdu'llah Pasha and, of course, later on these patterns were transferred to her life at the house of 'Abdu'l-Baha in Haifa. One was the undisputed authority of the Greatest Holy Leaf after 'Abdu'l-Baha; that was definitely clear. It was not Munirih Khanum; indeed, far from it. It was the Greatest Holy Leaf.

A second was her leadership in coordinating the meetings related to the Baha'i women. Whether in 'Akka or Haifa, she presided over their meetings and controlled everything. The friends would come to her for names for their children, for consultation about a forthcoming marriage and requesting her blessing on the union. She would generally inform the friends about the development of the Cause and whatever 'Abdu'l-Baha had said. She was the central point for the Baha'i women in the community in the Holy Land.

A third was her contact with women of the higher social class in 'Akka and later in Haifa. Zeenat said that whenever prominent persons such as the Mufti of 'Akka, the Governor, or other high officials of the government called upon 'Abdu'l-Baha, He would ask the Greatest Holy Leaf, rather than His daughters or His wife, to visit the women in their homes while He entertained the men in His home. In addition to Persian, the Greatest Holy Leaf spoke fluent Turkish and Arabic.

A fourth aspect became increasingly clear as the Research Department made a study and review of the documents at the World Centre: the extensive correspondence conducted by the Greatest Holy Leaf from the days of Baha'u'llah until the end of her life. During the last six years of Baha'u'llah’s Ministry she was the Most Exalted Leaf after her mother, and there are letters written by her at that time. During the Ministry of 'Abdu'l-Baha likewise there are letters from her, and after the passing of the Master, of course, during the difficult period when she was head of 'Abdu'l-Baha's household and head of the committee which was operating here in charge of the affairs of the Faith in the absence of Shoghi Effendi, until the period when he was able to take the reins of authority in his capable hands.

A fifth aspect was her domestic duties. Ella Goodall Cooper wrote a few lines which I think describe very well the busy life of the Greatest Holy Leaf in the household of the Master.

'One day', she writes, 'we caught a glimpse of her in the kitchen, seated on a low stool, her firm, capable hands busy with a large lamb that had just been brought in from the market. Quickly dividing it, she directed which part was to be made into broth, which part served for the evening meal, which part kept possibly for the morrow, and which was to be sent to those poor or incapacitated friends who were daily supplied from 'Abdu'l-Baha's table.' The relationship of the Greatest Holy Leaf to the poor is an element of her life which is sometimes forgotten. During the First World War she was the person responsible for feeding the poor from the Master's house: she cooked for them, sent them rations or supplied rations when the poor came asking. All this was under her control.

An American believer, Curtis Kelsey, was present in the Holy Land at the time of the passing of 'Abdu'l-Baha. In the memoir of Mr. Kelsey written by Nathan Rutstein we find a description of the event: 'The Greatest Holy Leaf calmly went about comforting the grief-stricken, absorbing their pain. As Curtis watched her move from person to person, stroking a shoulder, clasping a stretched-out hand, he noticed that she exhibited the kind of strength that 'Abdu'l-Baha radiated. Some sensed that and clung to her. Her control, her poise, her unrestrained flow of' compassion assured him that the Faith would not falter. She was, at that moment, the head of the Faith that her dear brother had led so successfully for twenty-nine years, giving His all. She was a tower of strength that all would rally around for support.

'As he watched the Greatest Holy Leaf, her eyes caught his and she walked over to him. Since he was not crying, he wondered why she was coming toward him.

'"Kelsey," she said, "will you take Fujita and Khusraw to 'Akka to tell the friends there of the Master's passing and then come right back?" '

Here she was in the midst of this storm of sorrow, yet she was in full control, giving instructions, comforting everyone around her, although she was the one who was in need of the greatest comfort. When the beloved Guardian passed away and a torrent of grief afflicted the Baha'is of the world, our beloved Amatu'l-Baha Ruhiyyih Khanum acted in exactly the same way.

In response to a request of the Universal House of Justice the Hand of the Cause Abu'l-Qasim Faizi has written a brief account of his visits to Haifa during the time when he was a student at the American University in Beirut. He relates a little story that is touching, one we have heard from him many times. One day Shoghi Effendi asked Mr. Faizi to chant a prayer; he had a most melodious and heartwarming voice. The next day Shoghi Effendi said that the Greatest Holy Leaf had heard his voice and she would like him to sing and chant for her. With a few other students, Mr. Faizi went to the Greatest Holy Leaf and chanted. The next day Shoghi Effendi inquired whether Mr. Faizi had visited the Greatest Holy Leaf. 'Yes,' Mr. Faizi replied. 'And did you chant for her?' 'Yes,' said Mr. Faizi. Then Shoghi Effendi said that he had left his door open in order to enjoy the chanting and explained that the Greatest Holy Leaf first heard Mr. Faizi chant because she had left her door ajar on the earlier occasion.

Mr. Faizi in his reminiscences describes another occasion on which the Greatest Holy Leaf was very happy. He writes, 'When our small group of students from Beirut was ushered into the presence of the Greatest Holy Leaf she was seated at the upper end of a large room facing the door.' I think this must be the same room which served as the women's tea-room. 'The wife of the Master, Munirih Khanum, sat next to her and other ladies of the household sat on either side in a semicircle. The mother of the Guardian, Diya'iyyih Khanum, stood behind the Greatest Holy Leaf with her hands resting on the shoulders of her beloved aunt. We students were given seats facing this beautiful audience. Khanum sat still, her lily-white hands resting gently on her lap. She was a queen who inspired love and reverence and at her throne of grandeur we offered our grateful hearts. Her glance was full of love but she did not speak to us. The Master's wife, Munirih Khanum, spoke on her behalf. She greeted us when we arrived and thanked us warmly in Khanum's name at the end of our programme of prayers, songs and Baha'i poems.'

On yet another occasion the students were invited. 'This time she said she would like to hear one of the songs that labourers sing in Iran as they go home in the evening on their way back from work. She asked if there was anyone among us who knew these songs. We were surprised that Khanum should still remember such songs which she must have heard on the streets in Tihran during her early childhood. Perhaps the sight of a group of young Persians or the music of the tar (one of the students had a tar, a Persian stringed instrument) had taken her memories back to those days.'

Marjory Morten in her tribute to the Greatest Holy Leaf makes a touching observation which is accurate as far as my own experiences go: 'She delighted in making presents – sweetmeats and goodies and coins for the children, and for others flowers, keepsakes -- a vial of attar of roses, a rosary, or some delicate thing that she had used and cared for. Anything that was given her she one day gave to someone else, someone in whom she felt a special need of a special favour. She was channel rather than cup; open treasury, not locked casket.'

I have selected just four brief passages from the memoir written by the Hand of the Cause Keith Ransom-Kehler. These passages ring true:

'On two occasions she removed my Baha'i ring and after holding it for some time replaced it reversed. Twice she blew on the palm of my hand, a sweet, cool, delicious breath and then exultantly exclaimed: "It is all right now."

'She would reach out her delicate hand and, pressing my cheek close against her own, would make some lover-like exclamation. I was dissolved by her sweetness.

'For the most part she would chant in a low delicious voice some glorious Tablet or poem, soothing my hand or holding me under the chin as she sang.

'Every Sunday she insisted in going to the meeting on Mt. Carmel: she had to be lifted in and out of the car.'

Keith Ransom-Kehler refers here to the last time she met Bahiyyih Khanum toward the close of her life; she was here in March 1932, not long before the passing of the Greatest Holy Leaf.

As to my own memories, perhaps I could present one or two vignettes. The first I call 'a mouthful from Khanum, but not Khanum's mouthful'. I say this because in The Priceless Pearl Amatu'l-Baha Ruhiyyih Khanum refers to Khanum's mouthful, and she did so again in her remarks this morning.

About 1926 or 1927, when I was about five or six years old, I came to the Master's house with my mother one hot afternoon -- it was probably during the summer months -- and the door of the house was open. The Greatest Holy Leaf was seated next to the big round table which is still there in the hall of the Master's house. The samovar was next to her and around this table were seated Munirih Khanum and the daughters of 'Abdu'l Baha. We reached the hall and stood there and bowed. I following my mother's example. Khanum looked at us and told us to come in. She was having tea. As I came closer I saw that she was having fresh Arabic bread, white cheese and fresh mint. These were placed on the table. She had made one mouthful of bread, cheese and mint, apparently intending to have it herself. It was ready to be eaten and she was still holding it in her hand. As we approached she asked me to come forward and I moved closer to her. She then asked me to close my eyes and I dutifully closed them. Then she said, 'Open your mouth!' and she put the tidbit in my mouth. So vivid is this experience that every time I recall it I feel that I can taste that fresh mint, bread and cheese from the hand of the Greatest Holy Leaf. I feel and taste it every time I bring the incident to memory.

My brother, Jalal, was two years older than I was. The second story is about him. I was not present on one occasion when he was leaving the presence of the Greatest Holy Leaf. It was at the time of the mandate when we had British currency. She placed one shilling in his hand and said, 'Jalal, here is a shilling, half for you and half for your brother.' Jalal said, 'But Khanum, how can I break this coin?' She laughed and beckoned him to her and gave him another shilling. 'This one is for your brother.'

Many were the times my brother and I had sweetmeats, nuts, cookies and other goodies in room. Often she was tired and would be seated or in bed. She would say, 'Bring that box from under the mandar. Bring it out -- that's right, bring it out. Now open it. Take one for yourself and give one to your brother.' How many times I have gone into that room in great reverence and knelt down, as we used to before the portraits of Baha'u'llah and the Bab, and watched while the Greatest Holy Leaf sat there reverently unveiling the portraits and then closing them up again after the viewing was over.

We have heard of the delight the Greatest Holy Leaf took in giving presents. Mr. Abu'l-Qasim Faizi describes an event he witnessed when some Arab women came to pay a visit. Bahiyyih Khanum wanted to give them something, but finding nothing in her room she requested that some sugar cubes be brought from the kitchen and she presented them to her guests. She always wanted to give gifts to others.

The story I will now relate, although not all of it refers to the Greatest Holy Leaf, illustrates what I witnessed of the tender relationship between the Greatest Holy Leaf and Shoghi Effendi. Once our mother asked my brother and I to go to the Master's house after prayers at the Shrine of the Bab. In those days the Guardian was younger and, following prayers, he would walk down to Abbas Street and, the terraces beyond Abbas Street not yet having been built, he would turn to the right on Abbas Street, and then proceed to Haparsim Street and straight down to the Master's house. The pilgrims would usually walk with him. On that particular day my brother and I, too, followed Shoghi Effendi because we thought how much better it was to go to the Master's house with him. When Shoghi Effendi reached the gate he turned and said, 'Fí Amáni'lláh' (May you be under God's protection) and went in. Being younger than Jalal, I was glad to follow him when he set out after Shoghi Effendi. The Guardian went up the stairs and we did, too, and then entered the house. It was the custom of the Guardian to have his one major meal each day with the Greatest Holy Leaf. It was also his practice to go to her after meeting with the pilgrims and sit and talk to her. Shoghi Effendi turned right to go through the corridor next to the room in which the Master passed away and proceeded to the next room which was the Greatest Holy Leaf's bedroom. He went along that corridor and we followed, and when he opened the door I was so close to Shoghi Effendi at that point that I saw that the Greatest Holy Leaf was in bed. As soon as she heard the footsteps of Shoghi Effendi and the opening of the door she was at the point of rising from bed to sit in the presence of the Guardian. Although the distance is not far from the door to the bed, Shoghi Effendi literally ran from the door to the bed and gently restrained her, saying 'Já'iz níst' (it is not permissible). He did not want her to be disturbed.

There is a little sequel to this incident and although it does not directly relate to the Greatest Holy Leaf, since we have begun the story, let me finish it. In the room of Khanum, Shoghi Effendi seated himself. My brother and I, with childish aplomb, sat down too. Then my mother found out what had happened and sent the maid immediately to tell us to come out. The door was opened again and with a motion of her eyes the maid signaled us to leave. Jalal very reverently stood and bowed and withdrew from the room. But I thought this wasn't right; I thought, 'This is not the way to do things!' I felt there should be a handshake. This, of course, was totally inappropriate but to my childish mind it seemed the proper thing to do. I went straight over to Shoghi Effendi who was seated in a deep comfortable armchair and offered him my little hand. Shoghi Effendi looked at me and pulled himself closer, accepted my hand and shook it. This all took time. When I went outside my mother asked me what had delayed me and I explained that my brother didn't shake hands and I thought I should. She was horrified and struck my hand, saying, 'Out of reverence for the Guardian you should have done exactly what your brother did.'

Of course, I felt very bad about this. As we were going home my mother asked again, incredulously, 'You shook hands?'

I said, 'Yes.'

'With your right hand?'

'Of course.'

'Give me your hand.'

I did, and she kissed it several times.

When the Greatest Holy Leaf passed away in her eighty-sixth year, on 15 July 1932, an announcement was printed in Haifa and distributed to everyone concerned, Baha'is and others, in Haifa, 'Akka and Jerusalem. At the top is set out stanza 33 of the Hidden Words of Baha'u'llah, from the Arabic: O Son of Spirit! With the joyful tidings of light I hail thee: rejoice! To the court of holiness I summon thee; abide therein that thou mayest live in peace for evermore. Baha'u'llah.

Then it states: 'The family of the late Sir 'Abdu'l-Baha 'Abbas announces with profound sorrow the death of Bahiyyih Khanum, sister of the late Sir 'Abdu'l-Baha 'Abbas, who passed away peacefully at 1 a.m. on the morning of July 15. The funeral procession from her home in the Persian Colony is at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, July 15th.'

The passing of the Greatest Holy Leaf was the most significant event in Haifa since the passing of 'Abdu'l-Baha. Many people gathered for the funeral; indeed, there were a hundred cars following the procession. Shoghi Effendi obviously was not in Haifa. Apart from many dignitaries, the Mayor of Haifa was present and the representative of the northern district. There were people present not only from Haifa, but 'Akka, Abu-Sinan, Nablus, Jaffa and Jerusalem, and of course the Baha'is were present. The prayer for the dead was read in the Master's house in the main hall. Some of the friends served as pallbearers. The coffin was raised shoulder high on the shoulders of the friends and carried from the Master's house up to the Shrine. The coffin was brought in not through the main gate but through the small gate next to the school, almost immediately above the cluster of cypress trees where Baha'u'llah sat, and then down the path to the Shrine. As I recall, it was not taken inside but was placed outside and prayers were read there as well. Then her coffin was raised again and carried along the same route to her resting-place. The site was chosen by Shoghi Effendi and he himself had instructed his father in Haifa exactly where the site should be and how the burial should take place. Shoghi Effendi also instructed the Baha'is to visit her resting-place every day for nine days. Every afternoon for nine days we gathered at her resting-place for prayers.

There were among the local Arabs those who had written eulogies (Marthlyyih) about the Greatest Holy Leaf and they wanted to read them. There was no time on the day of the funeral so this was set aside because evening came on and everybody had to go home. Very soon requests were made for a meeting in the Master's house for these poets and various officials to come and, as is the custom, offer condolences to the family, recite poems written in honour of the Greatest Holy Leaf and speak words of praise in her memory. This was immediately reported to Shoghi Effendi who said no. Instead he said that on the fortieth day after her passing a luncheon should be held for the poor and all else who might come. On the 25th of August all the friends gathered. Some of us were cooking, others were cleaning, others were laying tables and others were serving. Your humble servant was among those who were serving. A long table was laid seating 100 people. We had ten or eleven turnovers; over 1,000 people came. This is how it went on until 3 or 4 o'clock in the afternoon. A tent had been erected in the garden where those waiting to be seated could shelter from the hot summer sun.

Shoghi Effendi also gave the sum of £100 -- a considerable amount in those days -- to the municipality of Haifa asking that it be distributed to the needy in the name of the Greatest Holy Leaf. An announcement was made in the papers and the municipality set up a special committee to screen applications for assistance and distribute the money to those genuinely in need.

Before I conclude let me mention the hands of the Greatest Holy Leaf. The veins stood out visibly, very much in relief. There was a wonderful softness and a supple tenderness in her hands. She truly spoke with her hands. I have had the privilege of having her hand over my head; she stroked my head many times as a child. And I want to tell you I have kissed those hands many times; I have broken the law of the Kitab-i-Aqdas!

I can conclude with no more fitting tribute than that of Shoghi Effendi. This is such a beautiful description of Khanum:

“It would take me too long to make even a brief allusion to those incidents of her life, each of which eloquently proclaims her as a daughter, worthy to inherit that priceless heritage bequeathed to her by Baha'u'llah. A purity of life that reflected itself in even the minutest details of her daily occupations and activities; a tenderness of heart that obliterated every distinction of creed, class and colour; a resignation and serenity that evoked to the mind the calm and heroic fortitude of the Bab; a natural fondness of flowers and children that was so characteristic of Baha'u'llah; an unaffected simplicity of manners; an extreme sociability which made her accessible to all; a generosity, a love, at once disinterested and undiscriminating, that reflected so clearly the attributes of 'Abdu'l-Baha's character; a sweetness of temper; a cheerfulness that no amount of sorrow could becloud; a quiet and unassuming disposition that served to enhance a thousandfold the prestige of her exalted rank; a forgiving nature that instantly disarmed the most unyielding enemy -- these rank among the outstanding attributes of a saintly life which history will acknowledge as having been endowed with a celestial potency that few of the heroes of the past possessed.”

And then these beautiful words:

“Dearly-beloved Greatest Holy Leaf! Through the mist of tears that fill my eyes I can clearly see, as I pen these lines, thy noble figure before me, and can recognize the serenity of thy kindly face. I can still gaze, though the shadows of the grave separate us, into thy blue, love-deep eyes, and can feel in its calm intensity, the immense love thou didst bear for the Cause of thine Almighty Father, the attachment that bound thee to the most lowly and insignificant among its followers, the warm affection thou didst cherish for me in thine heart. The memory of the ineffable beauty of thy smile shall ever continue to cheer and hearten me in the thorny path I am destined to pursue. The remembrance of the touch of thine hand shall spur me on to follow steadfastly in thy way, the sweet magic of thy voice shall remind me, when the hour of adversity is at its darkest, to hold fast to the rope thou did'st seize so firmly all the days of thy life.”

Amatu'l-Baha Ruhiyyih Khanum spoke of praying to the Greatest Holy Leaf. I want to make a confession. For the past fifty years since her passing, every time I have had a very difficult, difficult problem that I found myself unable to resolve, I have turned to the Greatest Leaf.
(The Baha’i World 1979-1983, pp. 59-67)