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The Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith - Shoghi Effendi

Updated: Aug 7, 2020

After the passing of `Abdu'l-Bahá in 1921, the leadership of the Bahá'í community entered a new phase, evolving from that of a single individual to an administrative order founded on the "twin pillars" of the Guardianship and the Universal House of Justice.

This administrative order was originally envisaged by Bahá'u'lláh in his Book of Laws and was given further shape by `Abdu'l-Bahá, particularly in His Will and Testament. In that document He appointed His eldest grandson, Shoghi Effendi, as Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith and also referred to the future election of the Universal House of Justice, a legislative body of which the Guardian would be the "sacred head and the distinguished member for life."

The Universal House of Justice was not established in `Abdu'l-Bahá's lifetime; it fell to the Guardian to lay the base for its foundation throughout the thirty-six years of his tenure as head of the Faith of Bahá'u'lláh.

Shoghi Effendi
Shoghi Effendi

Throughout those years, Shoghi Effendi educated the Bahá'í community about the administrative order of the Faith and prepared it for the eventual establishment of that order's other central institution by writing consistently about the interconnection of the Guardianship and the Universal House of Justice, both of which he described as "divine in origin, essential in their functions and complementary in their aim and purpose." He continued on to state that their common purpose is "to insure the continuity of that divinely-appointed authority which flows from the Source of our Faith, to safeguard the unity of its followers and to maintain the integrity and flexibility of its teachings." The institution of the Guardianship is Bahá'u'lláh's means for providing for the continuation of the unerring interpretation of His word. The function of the Universal House of Justice, on the other hand, is to legislate upon matters "not expressly revealed in the Sacred Texts." As Shoghi Effendi said, "Acting in conjunction with each other these two inseparable institutions administer [the Bahá'í Faith's] affairs, coordinate its activities, promote its interests, execute its laws and defend its subsidiary institutions."

The interconnection of the Guardianship and the Universal House of Justice is further evidenced by the Guardian's ceaseless labor to foster the expansion of the Bahá'í community around the world in order to establish and develop the national legislative bodies of the administrative order; the goal of this work was the election of the Universal House of Justice and the full development in all aspects of the order ordained by Bahá'u'lláh.

While the Guardianship was outlined as a hereditary institution and `Abdu'l-Bahá's Will and Testament provided for the possibility of a line of succession to His appointee as Guardian, Shoghi Effendi died without any heirs and without being able to appoint a successor, as no other members of his family met the stipulations that had been outlined by `Abdu'l-Bahá. The vitality of the Guardianship continues, however, through the voluminous writings, the extensive guidance, and other legacies left to the Bahá'í community from Shoghi Effendi's ministry between 1921 and 1957. To appreciate fully the scope of these legacies, it is helpful for us to take a more detailed look at the many facets of the Guardian's work to develop the Bahá'í community.

The Work of Shoghi Effendi

In His Will and Testament `Abdu'l-Bahá wrote in these touching words of the one who would succeed Him after His death:

O ye the faithful loved ones of `Abdu'l-Bahá! It is incumbent upon you to take the greatest care of Shoghi Effendi....For he is, after `Abdu'l-Bahá, the guardian of the Cause of God.... He that obeyeth him not, hath not obeyed God; he that turneth away from him, hath turned away from God and he that denieth him, hath denied the True One. Beware lest anyone falsely interpret these words....

Thus, `Abdu'l-Bahá's choice of a successor to the leadership of the Bahá'í community after His passing was explicitly stated. The Guardianship protected the unity of the Faith of Bahá'u'lláh by continuing the line of authority, which had passed from Bahá'u'lláh to `Abdu'l-Bahá, and now rested on the shoulders of Shoghi Effendi, who was also called by `Abdu'l-Bahá in His Will and Testament 'the Sign of God'.

When he was appointed Guardian, Shoghi Effendi was in his early twenties, studying at Balliol College, Oxford. The grief he felt upon the death of his dearly-loved Grandfather, added to the weight of the responsibility he had been given in `Abdu'l-Bahá's will, was initially crushing, since he had had no intimation that he was to be appointed to any such position.

To deal with his grief and to prepare himself to assume the burden of authority placed upon his shoulders, he left the Holy Land and entered a several-month period of seclusion. During this time, he left the affairs of the Faith under the leadership of his great aunt, Bahiyyih Khanum -- Bahá'u'lláh's daughter and `Abdu'l-Bahá's sister. Shoghi Effendi and his great aunt were very close; she, of all the members of his family, understood his crushing grief at the loss of his beloved Grandfather, and she was a wise and loyal support to him during the early years of the Guardianship until her passing in 1932. The depth of his regard for her is evident in the tender tribute he penned immediately following her death, a small portion of which is excerpted here:

Dearly-beloved Greatest Holy Leaf! ...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 didst seize so firmly all the days of thy life.

The "thorny path" to which the Guardian alludes in this passage perhaps refers to one of the crucial and difficult tasks he was called upon to perform: the protection of the young Faith from enemies from both outside and within its ranks. He also served as the sole authoritative interpreter and expounder of its teachings; he erected the administrative order of the Faith; he prosecuted global plans for the worldwide expansion of the Bahá'í Faith, as outlined in the writings of `Abdu'l-Bahá; he translated volumes of the Faith's sacred writings from their original Persian and Arabic into English, which subsequently served as the standard for further translations into other languages; he wrote a history of the first century of the Faith; and he developed and beautified the properties at the Bahá'í World Centre in Haifa and Acre. Those are the major tangible legacies of the Guardianship, but perhaps as important as any of these was the way Shoghi Effendi inspired ordinary people to arise and do extraordinary things. In much the same way that a general marshals his troops to battle, he wrote numerous letters to the Bahá'í communities, large and small, all over the world and called them to greater service to their Faith and to humanity. For example, in a letter to the American Bahá'ís in 1948, he referred to them as "the champion builders of Bahá'u'lláh's rising World Order" and urged them to "scale nobler heights of heroism as humanity plunges into greater depths of despair, degradation, dissension and distress."

He safeguarded the unity of the Faith by acting, as `Abdu'l-Bahá before him had acted, as the authoritative interpreter and expounder of the Bahá'í 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 Bahá'u'lláh or `Abdu'l-Bahá 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 Bahá'í communities around the world. Through such guidance, the Bahá'ís remained unified in their clear understanding of the Faith's sacred writings.

Shoghi Effendi translated the Bahá'í writings from the language in which they were revealed -- either Persian or Arabic -- into a majestic style of English. In 1921, relatively few of Bahá'u'lláh's extensive writings were available in English. The Guardian translated Bahá'u'lláh's central works and compiled them so the Bahá'ís would have access to authoritative translations, and he published, under the title of The Dawn-Breakers, his annotated and edited translation of the main historical account of the early years of the Bahá'í Faith by Nabil-i-A`zam so the English-speaking Bahá'ís would be able to gain inspiration from the examples of their spiritual forebears and to read eyewitness accounts of those who met the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh. Shoghi Effendi also penned his own historical account of the first century of the Bahá'í Faith called God Passes By.

As builder of the administrative order, Shoghi Effendi took the writings of Bahá'u'lláh and `Abdu'l-Bahá concerning the establishment of Bahá'í institutions that would administer the affairs of the community, and he developed a plan to bring them into being. Taking as his guide Bahá'u'lláh's and `Abdu'l-Bahá's statements about the administrative order of the Faith, Shoghi Effendi developed the fledgling communities around the world to the point where they could support the institutions envisioned by Bahá'u'lláh. When he was first appointed Guardian, there were no national administrative bodies in the Bahá'í Faith; at the time of his passing, there were 26; at the time of the completion of the Ten Year Plan he had initiated for the global expansion and consolidation of the Faith between 1953 and 1963, there were 56.

Shoghi Effendi carried on an extensive correspondence with Bahá'í communities all over the world concerning the development of the Bahá'í administrative order. As early as March 1923, for example, he wrote a letter to the Bahá'ís in America, Great Britain, Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy, Japan, and Australasia, in which he outlined the conditions necessary for establishment of Local and National Spiritual Assemblies, guidelines for Assembly elections, and the parameters of Assembly functioning. He also offered the Bahá'ís the long view of such elections: "With these Assemblies, local as well as national, harmoniously, vigorously, and efficiently functioning throughout the Bahá'í world, the only means for the establishment of the Supreme House of Justice will have been secured."

The development of the administrative order was obviously not brought about in isolation. Coordinated with this was a series of plans designed to effect the systematic expansion of the Bahá'í community around the globe. Volunteers known as "pioneers" dispersed to remote areas to teach their Faith and found Bahá'í communities. In the Ten Year Plan which ran from 1953 to 1963, hundreds of pioneers settled in countries and territories throughout the world, establishing 44 new National and Regional Assemblies to add to the existing twelve, and the Bahá'í population swelled.

As well as coordinating the dispersal of Bahá'í pioneers to all parts of the globe, Shoghi Effendi greatly advanced the development of the Bahá'í World Centre in Haifa. He arranged for the construction of a superstructure over the tomb `Abdu'l-Bahá had erected where the remains of the Báb had been laid to rest; he beautified and expanded the gardens surrounding the Shrine of Bahá'u'lláh outside Acre; he constructed the International Bahá'í Archives building on the slopes of Mount Carmel, where the tablets and relics of the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh were to be appropriately housed and displayed for Bahá'í pilgrims; he had the remains of Navvab, the wife of Bahá'u'lláh who had accompanied Him through all His exiles, and His son Mirza Mihdi, who had died in the prison in Acre, transferred to their final resting places in the shadow of the Shrine of the Báb and near the grave of the Greatest Holy Leaf. All of this work was undertaken to create an atmosphere appropriate to the spiritual and administrative center of a world religion. As head of this religion, the Guardian also conducted activities related to the external affairs of the Faith and its World Centre.

Addressing even one of the various facets of the work undertaken by the Guardian was a herculean task; that the Guardian accomplished the vast number of objectives he set in so many different areas over a thirty-six year period is astounding, in retrospect. For this reason, and particularly for his accomplishment in bringing into tangible existence the new social order given by God to the world through the Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh, he has been extolled by one writer as "the one human being in all history, past, present or future, to exercise the greatest influence on the ultimate shape and modus operandi of the social order of the world." His widow, Amatu'l-Baha Ruhiyyih Khanum, expressed it this way:

The Guardian had fused in the alembic of his creative mind all the elements of the Faith of Bahá'u'lláh into one great indivisible whole; he had created an organized community of His followers which was the receptacle of His teachings, His laws and His Administrative Order; the teachings of the twin Manifestations of God and the Perfect Exemplar had been woven into a shining cloak that would clothe and protect man for a thousand years, a cloak on which the fingers of Shoghi Effendi had picked out the patterns, knitted the seams, fashioned the brilliant protective clasps of his interpretations of the Sacred Texts, never to be sundered, never to be torn away until that day when a new Law-giver comes to the world and once again wraps His creature man in yet another divine garment.
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