Amatu’l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum is a singular figure in Canadian Bahá’í history. Wife and confidant of Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, she distinguished herself through her writing, filmmaking, extensive world travel, religious leadership, as well as her exemplary efforts in support of aboriginal peoples, the environment and social justice. Née Mary Sutherland Maxwell, Amatu’l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum (or Madame Rabbani) was born on 8 August 1910 in New York City and grew up in Montréal.
She was the only child of May Maxwell, one of the first Bahá’ís in the Western hemisphere, and William Sutherland Maxwell, a distinguished Canadian architect. Madame Rabbani took great pride in her Canadian roots, visiting Montréal frequently in the course of her extensive travels in service to the Bahá’í community.
Mary Maxwell had a happy and carefree childhood. Her only sorrows were the periods of separation from her beloved mother, who travelled extensively for the Bahá’í Faith. Because the educational methods of the time tended to be rigid and authoritarian, May Maxwell established the first Montessori school in Canada in the Maxwell home.
Mary Maxwell became well read and knowledgeable, interested in a variety of subjects. Her thirst for knowledge was insatiable. She became involved in many youth activities, both within the Bahá’í community and elsewhere.
In 1937 she married Shoghi Effendi Rabbani, the Guardian and head of the Bahá’í Faith and great-grandson of its Prophet-Founder, Bahá’u’lláh. It was on this occasion that Shoghi Effendi gave her the name Rúhíyyih. One of the most outstanding services performed by Madame Rabbani was her work as Shoghi Effendi’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 served as custodian of the Bahá’í World Centre until the election of the Universal House of Justice in 1963. In 1952, she was elevated to the rank of Hand of the Cause, in which capacity she attended to matters related to the expansion and protection of the Bahá’í Faith, in addition to representing Shoghi Effendi at a number of important events in different parts of the world.
Following the passing of Shoghi Effendi in 1957, Madame Rabbani initiated efforts that maintained the unity of the Bahá’í community until the first election of the Universal House of Justice in 1963.
To an extraordinary extent, Madame Rabbani’s work exemplified the priority that the Bahá’í Faith gives to the unification of humankind. The greater part of her last 35 years was devoted to travels that took her to 185 countries and territories and that were a major factor in the integration of the world’s several million Bahá’ís into a unified global community. A significant feature of this effort was her success in welcoming members of indigenous peoples into full partnership in this worldwide undertaking.
For a period of four years, she drove 58,000 kilometres in a Land Rover throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, covering 34 countries, in 17 of which she was received by heads of state. On another occasion, she visited nearly 30 countries in Asia and the Pacific region within a span of seven months. 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 jungles of Suriname and Guyana and up the Amazon River in Brazil.
In the course of her travels, she was received by many prominent figures, including 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 wide interests and exceptional capabilities, Madame Rabbani was also an author, poet, lecturer and film producer. Her 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 His Royal Highness Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. In support of the environment, she participated in the activities of the World Wide Fund for Nature, addressing the 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 into planning and directing 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, the site of the Bahá’í World Centre.
* 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.
Early Canadian Bahá’ís
The Bahá’í community has a rich history of members who have contributed greatly to their society as well as to the early development of the Bahá’í community in Canada and the world.