Shoghi Effendi: A Bridge to the World

Shoghi Effendi, 1 Mar, 1897 – 4 Nov, 1957. (Photo: Baha’i Media Bank)

The year was 1922, and a young Iranian man, only 24 years old, had arrived at the foot of the Swiss Alps. His face was round and young, but his eyes were old and heavy with worry.

His name was Shoghi Effendi, and just weeks earlier, he had learned the news that his beloved Grandfather had died, and it now fell to him to lead a nascent, embattled religion. He had come to the Alps to, in his words, “conquer, himself that is, to come to terms with the end of the sort of life that most of us are familiar with, before taking up the mantle of authority of the most precious institution the world had ever known.

In, perhaps ironically, his most human and relatable moment, Shoghi Effendi later said:

I didn’t want to be the Guardian. I knew what it meant. I knew that my life as a human being was over. I didn’t want it, and I didn’t want to face it. So as you’ll remember, I left the Holy Land. And I went up into the mountains of Switzerland, and I fought with myself until I conquered myself. Then I came back and I turned myself over to God, and I was the Guardian.

In a faith with a history bejewelled by providencial turns, few circumstances could have been more providential — more fortunate — than that this weighty fate had fallen to this particular young man. With the luxury of hindsight, we know that this could have been no accident. Over the next 36 years, Shoghi Effendi would both soar in heaven and endure hell to carry the Faith of his Great-grandfather and Grandfather forward.

So much of what we take for granted as Baha’i life today was set in motion by Shoghi Effendi. The Shrines and gardens of the World Centre, the character of pilgrimage, the details and functioning of the administrative order, these were his handiwork.

One of the many fascinating aspects of his life was the way in which Shoghi Effendi embodied the union of East and West in the Faith he now headed as Guardian. Born in Akka in 1897, he was fully a Middle Easterner, with ancestral ties both to Baha’u’llah on his mother’s side and to the Bab on his father’s (itself a fascinating physical manifestation of his spiritual inheritance and destiny). But from a young age, we see him quickly placing one foot boldly in the West, and in so doing, becoming a sort of bridge, a colossus, bring together and holding together two very different cultures.

The Guardian was legendary in his ability to work, and reportedly lived on four hours of sleep a night. But when he did seek cultural enrichment, he turned to LPs of opera, his favorite being Madam Butterfly. Never given to frivolity, his nightstand reading was Edward Gibbons’ weighty History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He loved tennis and could hold his own on court. When he sought respite from the burdens and sorrows of leadership, it was often in the Swiss alps. One marvels at his utter mastery of English, written at such a high level as to send native speakers to their own dictionaries in order to keep up with the rich texture and subtlety of his thought. And when it came time to translate the Holy Writings into the other myriad languages of the world into which the Faith was spreading thanks to his non-stop efforts, he stipulated that they be translated not from their original Persian or Arabic, but from English.

Significantly, he married a Westerner. And when illness took his life much too soon, in London, he would even be buried in the West; in death as in life, he continues to bring Easterners to the West just as he brought Westerners to the East.

No aspect of his leadership could have been more difficult than maintaining unity by dealing with misguided souls within the nascent Baha’i community itself, and most tragically, within his own family. As if to underscore the absolute supremacy of spiritual heritage over physical heritage, one by one, the Guardian was forced to cast Baha’u’llah’s own family members out of the Faith that bore His name. Who among us would have the fortitude, the unwavering vision, to deal with members of our own families thusly? But such was the importance of unity and Covenant to the Faith, then as now.

His unifying influence extended to the interpretation of the Writings. As an official biography of the Guardian states:

He safeguarded the unity of the Faith by acting, as Abdu’l-Baha before him had acted, as the authoritative interpreter and expounder of the Baha’i sacred writings. All questions regarding interpretation were to be directed to him. Although he did not have the authority to alter in any way what Baha’u’llah or Abdu’l-Baha had revealed, he performed the crucial tasks of clarifying points which may not have been clearly understood and of elaborating upon previously revealed teachings. To this end, he wrote thousands of letters to individual believers and to Baha’i communities around the world. Through such guidance, the Baha’is remained unified in their clear understanding of the Faith’s sacred writings.

We also marvel at the tumultuous times through which he was called to lead the Faith. His descriptions of the twin processes of growth and decay were being illustrated more dramatically with each passing day: a global depression, a collapsing world order most evident on his doorstep in Europe, and an apocalyptic world war that must have felt to most like the very end of the world. Through it all he guided the rapid expansion of this relatively tiny faith with a steady hand.

It’s impossible to overstate Shoghi Effendi’s heroism and his station. Truly, in the critical time that the Baha’i Faith was germinating from an exotic seed in a faraway land to a wondrous new flower, rapidly spreading across the Earth, he was, as Abdu’l-Baha said, “…the Sign of God on Earth.”

About the Author

Avrel Seale lives in Austin, Texas, U.S.A., where he writes and speaks frequently on the Baha'i Faith. He's the author of seven books and the blog The Trailhead.

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Discussion 18 Comments

  1. Beautiful post! Thank you for sharing some wonderful insights into the life of Shoghi Effendi. I love the first quote you shared, revealing as you state, a very human and relatable moment. Also interesting to think about he needed to take the trip to the Alps to go through some personal transformation and conquer himself before feeling ready to give his life to the Faith as the Guardian. I think that’s something we can all really learn from…

  2. Great post Avrel. By the way, do you have the citation for the quote from the Guardian regarding not wanting to be the Guardian and needing to conquer himself? I really love that quote. Thanks!

    1. I remembered hearing it on a “tape” of a talk by Leroy Ioas. It too has always stuck with me. I found a reference identifying it as a talk by Hand of the Cause of God Leroy Ioas, transcribed from a recording made in Johannesburg, South Africa, October 31, 1958

  3. This was welcome and well written. I sometimes think that if the Baha’i Cause had nothing else to recommend it except that it had produced as great a man as the Guardian — talk about unknown hero/genius/movers/influencers of the 20th century! — then that would be enough for me. Most of us don’t know enough about him, and perhaps the younger believers and friends haven’t run across Ruhiyyih Khanum’s The Priceless Pearl (which is priceless, all the more so as time goes on) and another Hand of the Cause, Ugo Giachery, and his bio called Shoghi Effendi: Recollections. Of course, BB recently ran the interview with scholar Jack McLean and his study of the Guardian as a writer: Celestial Burning. The man, his breadth of vision, his breathtaking amount of work, his incredible feats of correspondence and translation and exposition: Shoghi Effendi was a miracle, and I daresay he was a martyr. I think he worked himself to a death that seems, still, woefully premature. On the other hand, he’d paved the way for the House of Justice to be elected, and we rely on his work no less today than when he lived.

  4. Thank you for so beautifully writing about such an amazing person and giving us this on the anniversary of his passing.

  5. thank you for this glimpse of the Guardian whose Writings i have recently committed myself to study. i heard that Shoghi Effendi read Gibbons when he was 12 years old away at academy! those eyes had seen so much already, with both inner and outer vision. He is so indescribably precious to our Faith and of course i cannot help but think of him also, though fully a man, as truly another beautiful mystery of God.

  6. to be picky for just a minute, the quote from the will simply says “sign of God,” not sign of god on earth.

    the quote about conquering himself is from Leroy Ioas. it can be found on an audio recording of Mr ioas that used to be available from the United States Publishing trust. It is possible that it is also in the book about Mr ioas. It is not a quote from one of the Guardian’s own writings. It is a pilgrim note from a very reliable source.

  7. I hearty agree that it is difficult to understand why there is not a better appreciation for the quality of the writings of the Guardian outside of the Faith and even by the younger believers. For those of us who served through the 10 yr Crusade to receive those thrilling letters made us ready to sacrifice everything to serve the Guardian. It mwas was some of the most exciting times in my Baha’i life. I wonder if future historians may consider this the most important period of his life. Great article, thanks
    .

  8. In 1961 I became a member of the Baha’i Faith, and in 1972 I made my first pilgrimage. I glimpsed the Guardian’s gargantuan contributions to his Grandfather’s redeeming faith during that pilgrimage. Every place of pilgrimage bore his imprint, from the beautification of all the sites to his panoramic vision of all that pertains to the Baha’i Faith and to the world. His instructions and guidance made possible placement of the book, Baha’u’llah and the New Era, in a library located on Guam (Marianas Is.) by a lone international pioneer during the Ten-Year Global Crusade, which I, fortunately, picked up and read.

    Thanks, much, for these reminders in your Blog.

  9. How Shoghi Effendi suffered!…. stories of his sensitive soul being paralyzed by the vicious attacks of covenant-breakers — his heart — his spirit (like His forbears ) was so pure and loving. Yet he left the judgement up to Baha’u’llah…. Still how he suffered! The world will never know! And the world is indebted to him for his sacrifices of undefinable proportions!

  10. Thank you very much for your very interesting article.
    But when we write the history of a personalty, we have to give his real name, his official name, not just his “nickname”.
    Currently, many people, Baha’i and non- Baha’i, believe that “Effendi” is the family name of the Beloved Guardian. However, “Effendi” is a very ordinary Turkish- Ottoman nickname…
    The name of the Guardian was, in fact, officially “Shoghi Rabbani”, or “Shoghi Effendi Rabbani”, summary, most of the time ; “Shoghi Effendi”, as called, familiarly and affectionately, by his Grandfather, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.
    Similarly, we call his wife, mostly, “Rúhiyyieh Khánum” but, in her biography, we have the obligation to indicate that her real and official name is “Rúhíyyih Rabbani”.
    Warm Greetings.

  11. Great article. Sorry it has taken me a while to come across it. Like Matt’s comment, I would like to see citations used whenever someone professes to quote another reference.

    Sorry to have to disagree with Rochan but the appellation Effendi was bestowed upon Shoghi Rabbani by his grandfather Abd’ul-Baha, when he requested everyone, including Shoghi’s own father to always refer to him as Shoghi Effendi. It may be generally used by Persians and Turks now as a nickname, but Abdu’l-Baha advised it should be used formally to indicate the respect that we should always have for the man who later became the Guardian. Some times we reflect on things from a different age with the eyes of common usage in our own time, instead of considering the prevailing environment or culture within which a word or term was used. This is a common failing when we judge or criticise terminology or events in the past from a current standpoint.
    Offered in the vein of maintaining a learning environment.

    1. Hi Kevin!

      Thank you for your comment! While Baha’i Blog is always growing, developing and progressing, we now strive to ensure that all quotations are referenced for readers who would like to look them up but some of our posts may be missing them. Thank you for pointing this out and for being a reader of Baha’i Blog!

      -Sonjel

  12. Hi guys,

    Does anyone here know exactly what Shoghi Effendi did to “conquer himself”? My only guess, and it’s based on my imagination at this point, is that it involved lots of prayer and meditation. But that’s really all I have. If anyone can shed some light on this I’d be very grateful.

    Thank you!

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