January 17, 2018

The Life and Service of the Greatest Holy Leaf - by Dr. Bahiyyih Nakhjavani

(Adapted from the address of Dr. Bahiyyih Nakhjavani to the Baha’i International Conference, Montreal, Quebec, 3 September 1982)

Across the world, from East to West, thousands of Baha’is have turned their hearts this year towards one single woman called the ‘Maid of Baha’. In conferences they have stood before multitudes to speak of the ‘Scion of Baha’, the ‘Remnant of Baha’. In solitude they have all found themselves speechless to describe adequately this ‘archetype of the people of Baha’. ‘Abdu’l-Baha Himself refers to her in a way that recalls all that cannot be said: ‘I dare make no mention’, He wrote, ‘of the feelings which separation from her have aroused in my heart. ...’ ‘I do not know’, He continues, ‘in what words I could describe my longing for my honoured sister.’

Shoghi Effendi, writing about his great-aunt after her passing in July 1932 also acknowledged that words could not adequately convey all that she was: ‘Not even a droplet of all thine endless love can I aspire to fathom, nor can I adequately praise and tell of even the most trifling out of all the events of thy precious life.’

How can we hope to encompass anything of her nature, therefore, when those who give us the words remind us that they will not suffice? How can we contain her when all our lives put together cannot comprehend the least trifling of the events she witnessed, the suffering she endured? It must be with feelings of awe that we approach this subject and with a sense of wonder that we ask: who was this ‘Maid’, this ‘Scion’, this ‘Remnant of Baha’ who must remain for all of time our ‘archetype’.

She was named Bahiyyih (Baha’iyyih) by Baha’u’llah. She was given the titles of the Greatest Holy Leaf, the Most Exalted Leaf, but in her letters she referred to herself as ‘this yearning prisoner’, ‘this lowly and grief-stricken maidservant’, ‘this wronged one’. In the writings of Shoghi Effendi we find expressions which have captured something of her nature and his wonderful imagery speaks where we fall silent. She has been called a ‘leaf ... sprung’ from the ‘Pre-existent Root’, ‘the fruit of His Tree, ... the lamp of His love, ... the symbol of His serenity. ...’ He calls her a ‘love-lorn moth’, a ‘soaring pillar’, a ‘rich mine of faithfulness’, an ‘orb in the heaven of eternal glory’. She holds a rank in this dispensation that is higher than any other woman can hold. Her station is one among those that revolve around the greater Manifestations of the past, those women who, like moths, revolved around the great suns of the previous Manifestations. Baha’u’llah wrote of her in these words:
‘Verily, We have elevated thee to the rank of one of the most distinguished among thy sex, and granted thee, in My court, a station such as none other woman hath surpassed.’

During the ministry of ‘Abdu’l-Baha her station was similarly exalted. Shoghi Effendi described her as a ‘staunch and trusted supporter of the peerless Branch of Baha’, ‘a companion to Him beyond compare’, ‘His competent deputy’, ‘His representative and vicegerent with none to equal her’. Shoghi Effendi also describes how much she meant to him during the first years of his own ministry, until her passing. He says she was ‘my sole earthly sustainer’, ‘my most affectionate comforter’, ‘the joy and inspiration of my life’.

The Greatest Holy Leaf had a subtle bond with Baha’u’llah, ‘Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi, a kinship that was infinitely tender and powerful. To Baha’u’llah she was far more than a daughter for she was like a mirror in which His good pleasure was exquisitely reflected. He says to her, ‘How sweet to see thy presence before Me, how sweet to gaze upon thy face.’ To ‘Abdu’l-Baha she was far more than a sister, for in letters of consuming tenderness He writes to her as ‘O My sister in the spirit and the companion of My heart, the beloved of My soul’. After her passing the secretary of Shoghi Effendi wrote of what she meant to the Guardian saying that the spiritual attachment he felt for her was ‘a bond so strong as to defy description, nor can the mind encompass that exalted state’.

Perhaps it is not presumptuous, therefore, if we should say that this subtle and mystic bond is still present with us today working through the Covenant of God, through the divinely ordained administrative order of God, and that her loving care and protection are with us still. Indeed, it can be no coincidence that the Universal House of Justice should have summoned the Baha’i world to remember her, fifty years after her passing, at a time which coincides with the year in which the House of Justice is itself advancing toward the plenitude of its powers, entering its Seat on the slopes of Mount Carmel, occupying a building set like a jewel on that arc at whose hub and centre lies enshrined the monument of the Greatest Holy Leaf. That subtle bond was a legacy given to us fifty years ago when she passed away. Today we receive that legacy again and none of us needs feel portionless or orphaned.

The following cannot pretend to be an historical account and is not intended as a source of biographical detail. Instead it will attempt to consider the degree of suffering experienced by the Greatest Holy Leaf, her service that gradually widened its sphere of influence as a result of that suffering, and finally the nature of the symbol that she is for us, not only as individuals but as members of institutions. The greatness of her station can only be measured by her obedience and her love for the Covenant of God. Her obedience and love for the Covenant is what ensured her proximity to the Centre of the Covenant throughout her life, and that proximity surely cannot be measured except by some reflection on the degree to which she suffered.

The Greatest Holy Leaf was an initiate of suffering, schooled in sacrifice, and she learned everything there was to know about loss. From the earliest years of her life she was deprived not only of home and security, but also of her dearest Father, when He was thrown into the Siyah-Chal and later when He removed Himself for two years from the community in Baghdad. Separation from Baha’u’llah and exile from her home: such were the experiences that marked the beginning of her life. In His letters to her later we read how ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s was one of the educating voices that trained her in the school of sacrifice and instilled in her the capacity to endure. He wrote, ‘If thou dost not bear these hardships, who would ever bear them?’ And this is what makes of her such a poignant symbol for us today. He counsels her at times of loneliness with words such as, ‘However great the distance that separates us, we still feel as though we were seated under the same roof, in one and the same gathering, for are we not all under the shadow of the Tabernacle of God and beneath the canopy of His infinite grace and mercy?’ Through her, therefore, we learn from Him.

During these early years of separation and sacrifice during which she lost one brother, and later in ‘Akka lost yet another, Mirza Mihdi, she played the role of auxiliary in the household, assisting her mother. Most of her services were internal, within the household. She served tea. We can imagine how much she must have learned from the mother who was so dear to her, with what joy she must have prepared for the return of Baha’u’llah from Sulaymaniyyih. She was herself never married, but that training she received as assistant to her own mother made of her a symbol of such maternal love as we cannot conceive, for she was entirely unpossessive in her mothering. When she died Shoghi Effendi wrote that we were orphaned, left destitute, for the whole Baha’i world at that time seemed under her protective care.

If we think of this quality in relation to individuals we see how often we may be called upon to be mothers to each other, no matter who we are. When we think of this quality in relation to the institutions of the Faith we realize that we surely have in our Assemblies a parent whom we can turn to with absolute trust if those institutions could also evince the characteristics of such gentle mothering. However the institutions need to be cared for also, and mothered, for this is the infant Faith of God. And modelling ourselves upon the Greatest Holy Leaf we, too, can try to extend that mothering, that generosity, that nurture, that nourishment to the infant institutions that are growing up all over the world.

It was around 1886 when the Greatest Holy Leaf had to endure the loss of her own mother. At that point in time Bahiyyih Khanum received the title of ‘The Greatest Holy Leaf. She took over the role of her mother, was at the helm of the household of Baha’u’llah, conducted the management of the affairs of the house, saw to the food that had to be bought and prepared, met the wives of the pilgrims and extended her love and generosity to the community of women who entered that house. Her loss was therefore paralleled by increased responsibility and this pattern was repeated throughout her life.

In 1892 she had to face the ‘supreme affliction’, the passing of Baha’u’llah, and the degree of that suffering was what nerved her to enter an even wider arena of service to the Cause. Her condition at that time was such that ‘Abdu’l-Baha wrote, ‘My sister for a considerable period, that is, from the day of Baha’u’llah’s ascension, had grown so thin and feeble and was in such a weakened condition from the anguish of her mourning that she was close to breakdown.’ But it is such a lady who was nevertheless able to stand as the supporter and companion of ‘Abdu’l-Baha at a time of severe crisis. Her role in the Baha’i community at this point was much more significant, for she had to receive on His behalf the wives of the dignitaries who came to visit the World Centre. Still she conducted the household affairs but the scope was now wider. Shoghi Effendi writes of how far-reaching was her generosity and compassion for the people of ‘Akka at that time and how, in spite of this, she was met with rejection and denial and was given no relief at the time of her own great grief.

During the last years in ‘Akka, before the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, when circumstances were so difficult and the life of ‘Abdu’l-Baha was under threat, it was the Greatest Holy Leaf who was trusted by Him, who was the custodian of His will, who was responsible for the safe keeping of His testament. She it was in whose room the casket of the Blessed Báb was kept for ten years because she was so trusted by ‘Abdu’l-Baha. In this way, surely, she is also a model for us not only within our individual lives but through our institutions, for where else could we turn in a world so sadly shaken? Where else but toward the solace of those divinely appointed institutions? To which other haven could we turn and put our trust and confidence?

The Greatest Holy Leaf was an extremely practical person. Indeed, due to the extraordinary multiplicity of her capacities we owe her a faithfulness in this attempt to convey the diversity of her nature. It is too easy for us to create a myth about her, to impose upon her the weight and strain of our twentieth-century interpretations which are inadequate for the duration of this mighty dispensation. She was truly sensitive and finely tuned but she was also immensely practical. There is a description drawn by an early pilgrim which shows her as the housekeeper of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, a role which she also performed during the early years of Shoghi Effendi’s ministry:

“One day 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 for the morrow, and which sent to those poor or incapacitated friends who were daily supplied from ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s table.”

It is fitting that we should consider the Greatest Holy Leaf as a model not only for our individual lives but for the qualities of service and the kind of obedience to the Covenant which can stream through our institutions, when we think of her in this capacity of practical housekeeper. Our institutions are dealing with our lives. It is human beings that are passing through the hands of our assemblies. We must have not only tender compassion for them but be immensely practical in our manner of dealing with community affairs so as not to cause harm or hardship or waste.

During the trials that affected ‘Abdu’l-Baha, during the threat on His life, the capacities of the Greatest Holy Leaf as housewife and mother enabled her to support ‘Abdu’l-Baha. In a much deeper sense than mere external practicality, she evinced a stability that was rooted in steadfastness to the Covenant. Shoghi Effendi says of that period, ‘Suffice it to say that but for her sleepless vigilance, her tact, her courtesy, her extreme patience and heroic fortitude, grave complications might have ensued and the load of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s anxious care would have been considerably increased.’ It was an element of her very practical nature that she did not wish to burden ‘Abdu’l-Baha any more than was necessary, and protected. Him with her discretion.

What joy it must have given her when the imprisonment was lifted and her beloved brother was permitted to be free and travel to the West! This was one separation the cost of which she surely did not mind paying, for the letters that streamed back to her from Europe and America must have filled her heart with happiness. The victories of the Faith were great recompense for all her previous suffering. And when He left her in Haifa, ‘Abdu’l-Baha gave her a much wider role. In His absence she had to deal with many of the affairs in Haifa which had been His responsibility. Everything which did not require interaction with the male world was left to her, because we must remember that this was the Middle East and it would not have been fitting for a lady such as the Greatest Holy Leaf to deal with business affairs; such matters were taken care of by the male members of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s household. But nevertheless her sphere of influence was wider and she received both men and women dignitaries and officials, spoke to the pilgrims on behalf of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, inspired them, gave her assistance to the poor and offered her medical services to the sick.

Shortly after ‘Abdu’l-Baha returned to the Holy Land after His travels in the West, World War I broke out. The Greatest Holy Leaf was in a position to offer some needed help to the local community. Shoghi Effendi writes that ‘her words of cheer and comfort, the food, the money, the clothing she freely dispensed, the remedies which by a process of her own she herself prepared and diligently applied, all these had their share in comforting the disconsolate.’

Here again we might consider how much she is a model for us not only as individuals but as institutions. She was a natural healer. She not only had compassion for the sick but insight into the nature of their sickness and she offered remedies which she prepared, as Shoghi Effendi said, by ‘a process of her own’. We might bear this in mind when we think of how often our Assemblies need to be a source of healing for the community, how they are required to consider each individual case, diagnose the condition, prescribe the remedies in the same way she did, so that by means of prevention, the health of the community might be ensured. We are told that she turned to professionals when necessary; so, too, do the institutions.

Through her own suffering she became attuned to the needs of the community and the importance of her role increased. The next great blow in her life came in 1921 with the passing of ‘Abdu’l-Baha. The One Who had always been there to comfort her was now gone, and now she became the comforter. It is at this point in her life that we begin to hear her own voice speaking in the beautiful tablets which have been translated by the Universal House of Justice for us this year. Among them there is one prayer that rises from the depths of her anguish and in it she becomes a spokesman for the suffering masses of the world. She speaks in the language of the heart on behalf of all who have been downtrodden, who have been suppressed, who have experienced a separation and loss of such magnitude that she alone could understand their plight:

‘O God, my God!

‘Thou seest me immersed in the depths of grief, drowned in my sorrow, my heart on fire with the agony of parting, my inmost self aflame with longing. Thou seest my tears streaming down, hearest my sighs rising up like smoke, my never-ceasing groans, my cries, my shouts that will not be stilled, the useless wailing of my heart.

‘For the sun of joy has set, has sunk below the horizon of this world, and in the hearts of the righteous the lights of courage and consolation have gone out. So grave this catastrophe, so dire this disaster, that the inner being crumbles away to dust. ...’

Where else could we find a spokesman who could so speak on our behalf about our deepest anguish? We know now why she has been offered to us as an intercessor, as one to whom we might turn at times of great despair. It seems most fitting that we reach toward her first, beg her assistance, ask for her compassion, because she has so keenly felt the pain of being human. She was no mediator between man and God, nor a mystery given by God to man, but simply a woman whose voice calling upon God seems universal in its truth and its sincerity. So, too, our institutions might echo that voice of compassion for us, might speak on our behalf when we feel downtrodden, might raise up the cry for the oppressed among humanity. Only the institutions of God can do that and be truly heard.

The passing of ‘Abdu’l-Baha which was so dire a catastrophe nevertheless left the Greatest Holy Leaf standing responsible for a Cause that needed its Guardian. This truly was her ultimate role for at that time she was the one who cabled the Baha’i world, who arranged for the funeral of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, who held us and contained our broken hearts until Shoghi Effendi was ready to shoulder the burden of his ministry.

Her letters that went out to the East and West at that time are among the most wonderful teaching letters that we have. She taught the Baha’is about the importance of the Covenant. She taught them to revere and love their Guardian. She taught them about the nature of the Will and Testament of ‘Abdu’l-Baha. She encouraged them to be united and warned them against disharmony. These letters show her truly as a teacher of the Cause, another of the roles set as a model for us.

In one of these letters she uses the metaphor of healing to teach, and she reminds the friends in very simple and direct language, without wasting words, that when a patient is ill he needs a potent remedy. Since the world had sustained a violent shock at the passing of ‘Abdu’l-Baha she writes, ‘Now it devolves upon every well-assured and devoted friend, every firm and enkindled believer enraptured by His love, to drink this healing remedy [she was referring to Shoghi Effendi] at one draught, so that the agony of bereavement may be somewhat alleviated and the bitter anguish of separation dissipated.’

She was always trying to help us endure separation, but her own separations were not completely over, for during the first three years of the ministry of Shoghi Effendi she had to endure many partings from him too. Among her letters there is one so touching that it awakens us to remember how keenly she must have felt these separations in her declining years:

‘It is the hope of this writer that the friends of God will put forth such efforts, and will so radiate their love for Him, as to light up the world; a love that will make the heart of the Guardian leap for joy, and then, God willing, he will soon come back again, so that before I close my eyes upon this life, the separation I endure will be over, and I can bid you all farewell with a happy heart.’

One of the characteristics of the Greatest Holy Leaf was her ability to endure suffering with the utmost joy reflected on her face. After her passing Shoghi Effendi’s secretary wrote, ‘Even in the thick of the worst ordeals she would smile like an opening rose.’ It is a smile that lingers with us still, a smile that looks at us with tenderness through the photographs. Within this smile there is so much of radiance and sorrow, so much of understanding; it is a smile so deep that we might feel it penetrating our inmost hearts. Memory lies evanescent on the eyes but rises from the deepest recess of the heart and there is something in our own hearts that must needs respond to the Greatest Holy Leaf, radiant in the midst of her anguish. Just as her own heart retained the treasured traces of the heroic age of Baha’i history, so our hearts too are revived and refreshed by ‘those smiles’ of hers exquisitely described by Shoghi Effendi which have been ‘forever and faithfully imprinted’ there. It is in the portrait drawn by his pen that we draw closest to her, gaze into her ‘blue, love-deep eyes’, bask in the warmth and ‘ineffable beauty’ of her smile, feel the tender touch of her transparent hand and hear the ‘sweet magic’ of her voice. No photograph transcends ‘the shadows of the grave’ as his words do; no commentary could contain her memory as does his paean of love.

Through him we first learned of her contributions to the Baha’i world and at her passing he conveyed to us, through the memory of her life, ‘a legacy that time can never dim’. But he does even more on our behalf, for he invites us to stand with him, at the threshold of her passing, and make a solemn promise. It is a promise so binding that fifty years after that event we recall it with awe and a dawning comprehension. It is a promise that reminds us not only of the legacy we have received but of the legacy we must pass on to the future. It is a promise that inspires us to rededicate our lives once more and revive within our institutions those qualities evinced by the life and service of the Greatest Holy Leaf.

‘Whatever betide us,’ is his solemn oath, ‘however distressing the vicissitudes which the nascent Faith of God may yet experience, we pledge ourselves, before the mercy-seat of Thy glorious Father, to hand on, unimpaired and undivided, to generations yet unborn, the glory of that tradition of which thou hast been its most brilliant exemplar.’
(The Baha’i World vol. 18)