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Amatu’l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum (1910 - 2000)
Amatu’l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum lived an astonishing life, one that will be studied for centuries to come. Raised in Montreal and eventually settling in Haifa, Israel, she became in the last half of the twentieth century the most well-known member of the Bahá’í community worldwide. Her life of extensive world travel, her religious leadership in a style showing unique capacity, her writing, her film-making, and her efforts on behalf of aboriginal peoples, the environment, and social justice were truly remarkable. At her death, memorials were printed in the major national newspapers of Canada.
Madame Rúhíyyih Rabbani, née Mary Sutherland Maxwell, was born on 8 August 1910 in Hahnemann Hospital, later known as the Fifth Avenue Hospital, in New York City. She was the only child of May Maxwell, one of the foremost disciples of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and William Sutherland Maxwell, a distinguished Canadian architect whose home in Montreal had long been known as a place of culture and spiritual vitality. Madame Rabbani took great pride in her Canadian roots, visiting Montreal frequently in the course of her travels to 185 countries over her years of service to the Bahá’í community.
Mary Maxwell had a full, free, and happy childhood. Her only sorrows at this time were the periods of separation from her beloved mother. The traditional educational methods of the time tended to be rigid and authoritarian, and May Maxwell was concerned with providing her daughter with the freedom which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had prescribed. For Mary’s early training, May established the first Montessori school in Canada in the Maxwell home.
She became a well-read and knowledgeable person, with a consuming interest in a variety of subjects. Her thirst for knowledge was insatiable. After two pilgrimages to the Holy Land, the first with her mother and the second with her mother’s friends, and meeting the Guardian, Mary Maxwell threw herself eagerly into all kinds of youth activities, both within the Bahá’í community and elsewhere.
She travelled and continued to develop her skills in teaching the Bahá’í Faith. In 1937 she married the Guardian, Shoghi Effendi Rabbani, who was the great-grandson of the Prophet-Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, Bahá’u’lláh. It was on this occasion that the Guardian gave her the name “Rúhíyyih.” One of the most outstanding services performed by Rúhíyyih Rabbani during their marriage was her role as the Guardian’s secretary, a task she undertook almost immediately after their marriage. From 1941, when she became Shoghi Effendi’s principal secretary in English, until 1957, she wrote thousands of letters on his behalf.
In 1951, Shoghi Effendi appointed her to the Bahá’í International Council, a nine-member body that prepared the way for the election of the Universal House of Justice. In 1952, she was elevated to the office of Hand of the Cause, in which capacity she attended to issues related to the expansion and protection of the Bahá’í Faith and represented the Guardian at a number of important events in different parts of the world.
Following the death of Shoghi Effendi in 1957, Madame Rabbani initiated efforts that effected the collaboration of all the Hands of the Cause in ensuring the successful completion of the ten-year plan which Shoghi Effendi had launched in 1953 for the global expansion and consolidation of the community. She was one of the group of nine that served as custodians of the Bahá’í World Centre until the election of the Universal House of Justice.
To an extraordinary extent, Madame Rabbani’s own work exemplified the priority that the Bahá’í Faith gives to the unification of humankind. The greater part of the last 35 years of her life were devoted to travels that took her to 185 countries and territories and that served as a major factor in integrating the world’s several million Bahá’ís into a unified global community. Not the least significant feature of this effort was her success in encouraging members of indigenous peoples into full partnership in this worldwide undertaking. Her travels to countries on all continents and to far-flung islands sometimes involved extended stays in certain regions. For a period of four years she drove in a Landrover for 58,000 kilometres throughout the length and breadth of sub-Saharan Africa, covering 34 countries, in 17 of which she was received by heads of state. On another occasion, within a span of seven months, she visited nearly 30 countries in Asia and the Pacific region. Her interest in indigenous populations and village life took her to remote places, and she documented her visits to many of these areas, such as South America, where she traveled in the jungle areas of Suriname, Guyana, and up the Amazon river in Brazil.
In the course of her travels, she was received by many heads of state and government and other prominent figures as diverse as Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia; Malietoa Tanumafili II of Western Samoa; President Houphouet-Boigny of Côte d’Ivoire; President Carlos Menem of Argentina; Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India; Prime Minister Edward Seaga of Jamaica; and Javier Pérez de Cuellar, Secretary-General of the United Nations.
A person of prodigious interests and capabilities, Madame Rabbani, in addition to being an administrator and world traveller, was an author, poet, lecturer, and film producer. Her several books include The Priceless Pearl, a biography of Shoghi Effendi, and Prescription for Living, which deals with the application of spiritual principles to practical life. Fluent in English, French, German, and Persian, she lectured widely, including occasions on which she shared a platform with HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Out of her concern for the environment, she supported the activities of the World Wide Fund for Nature, addressing the fund-raising banquet at Syon House in London in 1988 that launched its influential “Religion and Conservation” initiative; and she was present at the World Forestry Charter Gathering held at St. James’s Palace in 1994. Her love of the arts drew her to the planning and direction of the restoration of a number of historic buildings associated with the Bahá’í Faith.
Madame Rabbani died in her 90th year on 19 January 2000 in Haifa, Israel, where the Bahá’í World Centre is located.
* Adapted from Violette Nakhjaváni, “A Tribute to Amatu’l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum,” Bahá’í World, 1999-2000, pp. 167-95; and a press release from the Bahá’í Community of Canada, 19 January 2000.