Amatu’l-Baha Ruhiyyih Khanum

Amatu’l-Baha Ruḥiyyih Khanum, born Mary Sutherland Maxwell Aug. 8, 1910 - Jan. 19, 2000. (Photo: Baha'i World Centre)

Amatu’l-Baha Ruḥiyyih Khanum, born Mary Sutherland Maxwell
Aug. 8, 1910 – Jan. 19, 2000. (Photo: Baha’i World Centre)


15 years ago, on January 19, 2000, Madame Ruhiyyih Rabbani, born as Mary Sutherland Maxwell, and affectionately known by the title Amatu’l-Baha Ruhiyyih Khanum, passed away from this earthly plain. She was the Handmaiden of Glory; the beloved consort of Shoghi Effendi; his “shield”, his “helpmate”, and his “tireless collaborator”; a Hand of the Cause of God; and the “Baha’i world’s last living link to the family of Abdu’l-Baha”.

On the Sunday afternoon that her precious remains were laid to rest, the sweetness of a chanted Persian prayer reverberated throughout the garden where nearly a thousand friends had gathered from places far-flung across the globe to pay tribute and homage to this beloved personage. A soft rain began to fall gently upon all there; perhaps nature’s own testimony to the grief felt in all the hearts and the tears upon many a cheek.

The beauty of the love story that was to become Ruhiyyih Khanum’s life was one that began long before her birth. Mary Sutherland Maxwell was born on 8 August 1910 in New York City. The beloved only-child of William Sutherland Maxwell and May Ellis Bolles, she was a result of the prayers of Abdu’l-Baha for the fulfillment of May Bolles’ heart’s desire to have a child, and perhaps, the gift of her mother’s complete acquiescence and resignation to the Will of God.

A strong-willed, independently minded and vividly imaginative child, the depth of love within which Mary was raised is seen in a story written for her by her own mother in her early years, beginning thus:

This book is called Mary because it is named after its little heroine, and because there are probably more little girls named Mary that any other name in the world, and because Mary has been the name of some of the best and loveliest women that have ever lived.1

When Mary was two years old, Abdu’l-Baha came to visit the Maxwell family in their home in Montreal. Describing her as “the essence of sweetness”, Abdu’l-Baha recounts an encounter with two-year-old Mary:

Today I was resting on the chaise longue in my bedroom and the door opened. The little girl came in to me and pushed my eyelids up with her small finger and said, ‘Wake up, Abdu’l-Baha!’ I took her in my arms and placed her head on my chest and we both had a good sleep.2

Ruhiyyih Khanum herself said:

I was so attracted to Him that it was hard to keep me away from Him at all.3

In April 1923, following the passing of the Master, Mary and her mother set sail from New York for the Holy Land.

Violette Nakhjavani describes this very significant period as follows:

This first pilgrimage left an indelible impression on her, and in later years she recalled, in a personal letter, how she was touched by “the spirit of service” she discovered in Haifa, saying “… a Queen or a beggar woman would be met with the same loving sweetness. Indeed it was this divine normality that really confirmed me here as a little girl of twelve years.”4

This was also the first time that Ruhiyyih Khanum met the Guardian:

She often described the meeting with a sweet pleasure in the remembrance. She and her mother were installed in the Old Western Pilgrim House at the end of Persian Street and May, who had not been able to walk for over a year, was resting in bed. Since her nights were frequently sleepless and her nerves delicate, Mary had learned from an early age to protect her from intrusion. She was in the hallway of the Pilgrim House when the door suddenly opened and a young man stepped in, with a swift, deft movement, and asked if he could see Mrs. Maxwell. She was a tall girl for her age, fully grown and physically well-developed. She said she pulled herself up to her full height and, looking him squarely in the eyes with considerable dignity and aplomb, asked to know who it was who wished to see Mrs. Maxwell. The young gentleman meekly replied, “I am Shoghi Effendi.” Upon which she turned tail and fled into her mother’s room in mortified embarrassment. Hiding her head, as she used to say “like a puppy”, beneath her mother’s pillows, she could only point to the door and gasp, “He – he – is there!” when her mother asked her what the matter was. And when May Maxwell found out who it was behind the door, she said, “Pull yourself together, Mary, and go and invite him in.”5

It was during a later pilgrimage, in 1937, that another chapter opened in the life of Mary: that of her marriage to Shoghi Effendi.

The wedding took place on 24 March 1937, in Haifa, and it was on this occasion that the beloved Guardian gave her the name ‘Ruhiyyih Khanum’, meaning ‘Handmaiden of Glory’. In the book The Priceless Pearl, she describes the simplicity of her wedding day, when she went with Shoghi Effendi to Bahjí, saying:

I remember I was dressed, except for a white lace blouse, entirely in black for this unique occasion, and was a typical example of the way oriental women dressed to go out into the streets in those days, the custom being to wear black.6

In a letter to her mother, one year after her marriage, Ruhiyyih Khanum wrote:

If anyone asked me what my theme was in life I should say,‘Shoghi Effendi’.7

Indeed, the beloved Guardian referred to Ruhiyyih Khanum as “my helpmate”, “my tireless collaborator in the arduous tasks I shoulder”, and “my shield”. She worked consistently and arduously as his secretary for the twenty years of her intimate association with him, was appointed to the first International Baha’i Council in 1951, was its chosen liaison with the Guardian and, in 1952, was elevated to the rank of Hand of the Cause of God.

When, on 4 November 1957, the devastating news of Shoghi Effendi’s passing shook the Baha’i world, it was to Ruhiyyih Khanum that the friends turned. As Violette Nakhjavani describes:

It was up to her to take the next step to ascertain what should be done. The fulfilment of all the Guardian’s hopes and aspirations for the Ten Year Crusade became of uppermost importance to her. His good pleasure became the goal and object of her existence. From that moment to the end of her life her priorities never wavered.8

Violette Nakhjavani recounts the following conversation that took place between Ruhiyyih Khanum and Shoghi Effendi, prior to the Guardian’s passing:

One day, as he was passing by her desk, he stopped and looked at her and said, “What will become of you after I die?” She was shattered by this unexpected remark and began to weep, saying, “Oh, Shoghi Effendi, don’t say such terrible things. I don’t want to live without you.” He paid no attention, however, and after a pause continued, “I suppose you will travel and encourage the friends.” She said that this was the only remark he ever made about what she should do with her life after his passing.9

Ruhiyyih Khanum visiting Gbendembou village in Sierra Leone, March 1971.

Ruhiyyih Khanum visiting Gbendembou village in Sierra Leone, March 1971. (Photo: Baha’i World Centre)

And thus, in 1964, Ruhiyyih Khanum’s travels across the globe began. She traveled to over 185 countries and territories, visiting towns, cities, remote villages, jungles and islands, fulfilling the directive of the Guardian to “encourage the friends”. As an Ambassador of the Faith, she met with numerous Heads of State, members of Royalty, government officials, and gave hundreds of radio, television and newspaper interviews. She served as a representative of the Universal House of Justice at both national and international conferences, gatherings and conventions. Violette Nakhjavani describes Ruhiyyih Khanum during this time as follows:

…she was erect and regal and forever memorable, the essence of dignity and beauty. Her mastery of just the right word on each of these occasions, her ability to draw out her audience and touch people’s hearts, her clear and simple logic, and, above all, her wit and her bewitching sense of humour—these qualities endeared her to and charmed her audiences.10

Perhaps most poignant was the love and attention that she gave to “perfectly normal people in the peripheries of society.”11 Violette Nakhjavani recalls:

When asked what was her favourite spot, she would often say that it was in the villages and jungles of the world. She rarely missed the opportunity to validate people in far flung and remote places whom few had heard of and whose simple actions none might ever know.

How often in the course of these forty years by her side did I witness shy, unsure, sometimes dejected human beings uplifted by her genuine kindness, her praise and patience. Her instinct was to approach people with an open, candid heart, simply and unselfconsciously. It was to look for positive qualities in people and verbalize these. But though she was the perfect diplomat in some respects, she was also very direct and often said things frankly and outspokenly. The driving impulse in all her encounters with the Baha’is was to stir them to action and rouse them up so that they would teach the Faith.12

The words of the beloved Guardian to her, that “your destiny is in the palm of your own hand”, were ones that stayed with her for the duration of her life, and her faith and complete dedication and devotion to the Covenant were “strong and vibrant to the end”.13

The resting place of Ruhiyyih Khanum in Haifa, Israel.

The resting place of Ruhiyyih Khanum in Haifa, Israel. (Photo: Baha’i World Centre)

In remembering and honoring this brilliant and luminous heroine of the Faith, perhaps we can turn to Ruhiyyih Khanum’s own words to find strength and inspiration in our own lives:

THIS IS FAITH

To walk where there is no path
To breathe where there is no air
To see where there is no light –
This is Faith.

To cry out in the silence,
The silence of the night,
And hearing no echo believe
And believe again and again –
This is Faith.

To hold pebbles and see jewels
To raise sticks and see forests
To smile with weeping eyes –
This is Faith.

To say: “God, I believe” when others deny,
“I hear” when there is no answer,
“I see” though naught is seen –
This is Faith.

And the fierce love in the heart,
The savage love that cries
Hidden Thou art yet there!
Veil Thy face and mute Thy tongue
Yet I see and hear Thee, Love,
Beat me down to the bare earth,
Yet I rise and love Thee, Love!
This is Faith.


  1. Ruhiyyih Khanum quoted in The Maxwells of Montreal: Early Years 1870-1922 by Violette Nakhjavani, 2011 []
  2. Tribute to Amatu’l-Baha Ruhiyyih Khanum, by Violette Nakhjavani, 2000 []
  3. The Maxwells of Montreal []
  4. Tribute to Amatu’l-Baha Ruhiyyih Khanum, by Violette Nakhjavani, 2000 []
  5. Ibid. []
  6. Ibid. []
  7. Ibid. []
  8. Ibid. []
  9. Ibid. []
  10. Ibid. []
  11. Ibid. []
  12. Ibid. []
  13. Ibid. []

About the Author

Yas

Yas is happiest when the sun is shining. After country-hopping across the globe for the last ten years, she lives (for now) in the most beautiful (and windiest) city in the world. She loves the power of the creative word and teaches literature and creative writing to teenagers. She also loves strawberries.

Visit Author's Website

Share This Post With the World

Discussion 5 Comments

  1. A moving and high quality article commemorating the 15th anniversary of the passing of Baha’i heroine, Ruhiyyih Khanum. Many thanks!

    I remember travelling alone on foot to Macau (and by ferry also to Hong Kong) from the Peoples Republic of China to attend commemorations in her honour as recommended by the Universal House of Justice. Her record of service evocatively recounted by my Chinese friends at that time moved many including me to tears as we considered our own puny efforts serving the Faith.

    But, I wondered, privately to myself at that bitter sweet time of her passing, why a linguist of her caliber never seems to have commented on Esperanto and hardly ever on the principle of a universal auxiliary language itself in the last few decades of her life

    So I started digging and had the opportunity shortly after to put a similar question face to face to her co Hand of the Cause, doctor Furutan, during my nine day pilgrimage to the Holy Land

    Where to take it from here is the question?

    Baha’i love

    Paulo

    What will improve the public’s perceptions of a religious organisation priding itself on its package of new and noble principles, its internationality, its multi-ethnicity ostensibly favoring no one particular culture and on its core belief – consultation vis-à-vis the oneness of humankind? Picture a scenario in which notable Bahá’ís of privilege, capacity and influence at table with the Guardian on the most important days of their life here on earth (their 1937 Bahá’i pilgrimage together as mother and daughter), are advised point-blank that the Bahá’ís “must adopt Esperanto as the International Language for the present” and then next year at National Convention of the Bahá’ís of the USA and Canada, the former as Shoghi Effendi’s mother-in-law of one year courageously announces his ‘request’ from the podium in the presence of many Bahá’i leaders who are so shocked that silence reigns in that large gathering of articulate delegates and members of the Bahá’í religion. (One source utilizes the imperative ‘must’, the other the conditional ‘should’.) And, the outcome? Though Lidia Zamenhof [the Baha’i daughter of the founder of Esperanto] is present and though the National Spiritual Assembly has engaged her to teach Bahá’í teachers Esperanto, few if any, including the Guardian’s aforementioned interlocutors in Haifa several months earlier, react in the positive beyond an ephemeral exultation of enthusiasm. First-hand the Maxwells of Montreal received Shoghi Effendi’s injunction which as far as they are personally concerned amounts to more than Pilgrim Notes since May Maxwell (1870 – 1940) at Convention publicly describes the incident and his ‘request’ and states that the Guardian endorses its repeating for Bahá’ís. Obviously, for all I know, he subsequently advised his devoted and long-serving wife (Mary), whom he appoints Hand of the Cause of God in 1952, to persevere with Farsi study, a valuable accomplishment she eventually attains along with various European languages already acquired, as the best means of teaching the Faith in the circles she frequents. Alternatively, for all I know, the apparently deep-rooted rejection of her husband’s pleas and directives to study Esperanto amounts to her one and only fault. As we are all faulty I won’t go there or spend time on it except to say that far more serious shortcomings exist and that such workers in the Vineyard have built the Bahá’í frame work up and that God has forgiven what has passed. No written retraction or altering of position exists however vis-à-vis the Guardian’s ‘requests’ to those many Bahá’ís in attendance at Convention 1938 or in relation to his many appeals over many years calling on his coreligionists, to get on with his and his grandfather’s “repeated and emphatic admonitions” to study Dr. Zamenhof’s language of world peace.
    One more question if I may: putting aside momentarily any and all opinions Bahá’is hold as to the merits or impracticality of Esperanto today, let’s assume for argument’s sake the well-nigh entirely unbelievable that the seventy-year-old-veto-based UN selects English or Mandarin tomorrow as the world auxiliary language. May any Bahá’í administration subsequently rescind even one of the many encomiums in favour of Esperanto penned by Shoghi Effendi and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá? No! Their tributes accorded Zamenhof and Esperanto move many to tears to this day and stand for all time no matter which language eventually topples Babel. For a detailed account of this fascinatingly sad anecdote revealing an insight into the language culture in the Bahá’i Faith and into the Guardian’s wishes refer to the penultimate page of Chapter 23 in Wendy Heller’s LIDIA and to page 339 of Violette Nakhjavani’s The Maxwells of Montreal 1923 – 1952.

  2. We were treated to her hospitality in a “celebrate the indigenous” gathering of pilgrims and/or BWC staff in 1988, when Ruhiyyih Khanum invited us over. Hers was a genuine dedication to all native-born people, and this made me SUCH a stronger individual, readied for participating, profoundly encouraged by her attention and uplift, in my own Baha’i future.

  3. Dear all

    My observations above are those of an amateur writer and Baha’i in good standing who holds no administrative position in the Baha’i Faith nor do I foresee any such possibility given my circumstances and state of health.

    Though my several books on the language question are rather extensive they have successfully undergone the arduous requirements of Baha’i review and are available gratis on line thanks to Casper Voogt in America. I’d like to improve my skills of composition, such as they are, and also in coming editions make corrections which still seem necessary no matter how hard I try to eliminate errors .

    Given the benefits of consultation when a clash of opinions occur please weigh in with corrections to the challenging content of my observations above concerning Ruhiyyih Khanum. I mean, it’s customary to assume that one’s work is devoid of error when no objections or rebuttals ensue

    Speak up! You are among friends.

    Baha’i love

    PS I do hope dear Naysan’s health is holding up too given his work load

  4. Thank you very much for this interesting article about Madame Rùhiyyih Rabbàni.
    You write in this article : “…The beloved Guardian gave her the name ‘Ruhiyyih Khanum’, meaning ‘Handmaiden of Glory’…”.
    But, it is “Amatu’l-Bahà” that means : “Handmaidfen of Glory”, and not “Rùhiyyih Khànum”…
    Warm Greetings..

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *