The Broken Baha’i “Covenant”

By Eric Stetson

The central myth of the Baha’i faith, as it has come to be under­stood by its present-day adherents, is the doctrine of “the Covenant.” In the broadest sense, this is the claim that there is a perfect line of divine authority, from the Bab to Baha’u’llah, to ‘Abdu’l-Baha, to Shoghi Effendi, to the Universal House of Justice. Each link in the chain is be­lieved to be solid and unquestionable.

In reality, the history of the Baha’i faith is in large part a story of shattered plans and broken promises—or to put it in Baha’i terminol­ogy, “Covenant-breaking.” During the ministry of each leader and at every stage of transfer of leadership, there has been a great deal of con­flict and controversy. Covenants have been broken not only by those who have traditionally been assigned the blame, but by the recognized leaders of the faith as well. With every fresh round of dissension and excommunications, there were valid arguments on both sides, but one side utterly defeated the other and demonized it to such a degree that its views are typically never considered by Baha’is or by the average per­son studying the Baha’i religion.

Baha’is have responded to the historical record by digging in their heels on the thoroughly refutable claim that theirs is the only religion in history which has a perfect, unbroken chain of authority passed down from one leader to the next. It does not; no major religion does. In fact, Baha’i may actually be more noteworthy among religions for its perfect record of leadership conflicts in every generation or stage of de­velopment during the first one hundred years of its existence. The Baha’i “Covenant” is broken—and always has been, from the moment Baha’u’llah declared himself to be a new Manifestation of God.

Let’s start there. The Bab appointed Mirza Yahya Nuri, a younger half-brother of Baha’u’llah, as his successor. It was far from clear that another Divine Manifestation should appear anytime soon; according to Babism, the founders of religions were supposed to appear roughly every one thousand years. But because the Bab’s successor was a quiet man with a reclusive personality—more interested in writing esoteric religious texts than in playing the role of a charismatic leader for the nascent Babi community—many followers of the Bab began looking for a forceful personality to provide them with the divine guidance they craved. Several prominent Babis proclaimed themselves to be “Him whom God shall make manifest,” interpreting vague prophecies of the Bab in their own favor. Mirza Husayn Ali Nuri was one of these claim­ants, calling himself Baha’u’llah. Shortly thereafter, Mirza Yahya re­sponded by making a similar claim, and called himself Subh-i-Azal.

It is beyond the scope of this article to investigate the conflict be­tween these two brothers, but suffice it to say that it was ferocious. There were denunciations and counter-denunciations, and the Nuri family was split between supporters of each brother.[1] Things reached the point of assassinations and attempted assassinations. Eventually the government had to intervene and banish the two branches of the family and their respective fanatical followers to two different prov­inces of the Ottoman Empire: the Azalis to Cyprus, and the Baha’is to Syria (now Israel).

This was the atmosphere in which Baha’u’llah’s sons grew up: a poi­sonous indoctrination into hatred of their own relatives who had cho­sen a different interpretation of the Babi religion.

I have not attempted to form a scholarly opinion about which side of the Azali-Baha’i conflict was more in the right, factually and morally speaking,[2] but I can understand why Baha’u’llah made his claim to be a new prophet rather than deferring to his younger brother: He be­lieved—as most other Babis came to believe as well—that Mirza Yahya was a weak leader and, to the extent that he was providing leadership at all, was not leading the new religion in the right direction. In the culture of millenarian Shi'ism and Babism, the way to “get things done” was to claim to be a divinely guided teacher and draw fellow religious radicals under your spell. Baha’u’llah did what he felt he had to do, and his personality fit the role to a T. Within a few years, he had largely succeeded in taking over the Babi movement, which became the Baha’i faith.

So, the Baha’i faith began by one brother usurping the other brother’s position as successor to the Manifestation of God in whom they both believed. Perhaps for legitimate reasons; perhaps, had Baha’­u’llah not done this, Babism would have died out or fragmented into numerous insignificant sects—even if, technically, he obtained his po­sition of leadership through an illegitimate claim.

There is also the feet that Baha’u’llah simply did not agree with some of the Bab’s teachings. For example, the Bab believed in military jihad (holy war); his goal was the overthrow of the corrupt Persian gov­ernment, and his followers rose up as political revolutionaries and fought for the triumph of their faith by the sword. Baha’u’llah strongly condemned this, and taught the Baha’is to be peaceful martyrs, obedi­ent even to unjust governments. In an under-appreciated act of intellec­tual courage and spiritual reformation, Baha’u’llah, who was born and raised a Muslim, did what people around the world are hoping that more Muslim leaders will do today: explicitly renounce the Islamic doc­trine of holy war. In his revolutionary words, “The First Glad Tidings which is conferred in this Most Great Manifestation on all the people of the world... is the abolishing of the decree of religious warfare from the Book.”[3]

Dr. Denis MacEoin, a former Baha’i who taught Arabic and Islamic studies at universities in England and Morocco, summarizes the con­flict between Subh-i-Azal and Baha’u’llah as follows:

Although later Baha’i sources have tended to play down or dis­tort his role, there is adequate contemporary evidence that, in the early period of the Baghdad exile, a consensus of opinion favoured the leadership of a young man widely regarded as the ‘successor’ (wasi) of the Bab—Mirza Yahya Nuri Subh-i Azal... [B]oth he and his followers emphasized a conservative, retrenched Babism cen­tred on the doctrines of the Persian Bayan and other later works. Subh-i Azal seems to have remained faithful to the long-term goal of overthrowing the Qajar state by subversion ...

There are indications that Husayn ‘Ali [Nuri] did not at first envisage for himself any role in the Babi community beyond that of spiritual preceptor, and, indeed, he abandoned the group at one point to embark on the life of a Sufi darvish at the Khalidiyya mon­astery in Sulaymaniyya, with every intention, it seems, of dissoci­ating himself from the movement permanently. Persuaded to re­turn to Baghdad in the spring of 1856, however, he began to devote himself to the reorganization of the sect... By the early 1860s, to­wards the end of his stay in Baghdad, he had firmly established his position within the community and begun to express his au­thority [and] claims in increasingly messianic terms. Numerous passages of the Persian Bayan refer to the future ‘divine manifes­tation’ destined to succeed the Bab as the latter had succeeded Muhammad, speaking of him eschatologically as ‘he whom God shall make manifest’ (man yuzhiruhu’llah), and indicating that he would appear in about one to two thousand years time.... The appeal of a new messianic impulse [i.e. the claim of Baha’u’llah] encouraged a thoroughgoing reinterpretation of the Bayanic prophecies, in order to demonstrate that the Bab had, in fact, an­ticipated an extremely early appearance of this saviour figure ...

Babi militancy having failed, Husayn ‘Ali chose to revert to the quietist stance of orthodox Shi'ism. ... A semi-pacifist, politically acquiescent posture was consonant with and, indeed, integral to the deradicalized and increasingly universalist form of Babism be­ing taught by Husayn ‘Ali during the 1860s...[4]

The full-blown pacifism and internationalism of Baha’u’llah’s later teachings were a philosophical progression that turned the Baha’i faith into something completely different from the jihadist, Iran-centric Babism from which it had sprung. The most important points to un­derstand are that Mirza Yahya Nuri was recognized as the Bab’s succes­sor, and that the Bab wrote that the next Manifestation of God would not come for at least one thousand years. But Mirza Husayn Ali Nuri chose to break this covenant of the Bab and declare himself Baha’u’llah, the new Manifestation, because he disagreed with the leadership style and ideas of his brother and believed that Babism should move in a different direction.

Perhaps somewhat predictably, in the next generation Baha’u’llah’s sons reenacted the brother-against-brother battle of their father and uncle, concerning the future direction of the Baha’i faith. Once again, the younger brother accused the elder of making excessively grandiose claims. The issues at stake were different, of course; and in this case, it was the successor of the prophet who was more inclined to make changes to the religion rather than his competitor. But the intensity of the dispute between Abbas Effendi and Mohammed Ali Bahai, and the bitterness of the rift it created not only between themselves but in the faith community as a whole, was very similar to what had happened between Mirza Husayn Ali and Mirza Yahya. Holy war was not abol­ished even from their own family, despite the noble principles for hu­manity that Baha’u’llah had taught in his writings. Instead, impression­able young men learned from the example of their elders in their own lives: the authoritarian absolutism of their father, a man who claimed to be speaking for God at all times (a claim which was emulated to some degree by Abdu’l-Baha), and his acrimonious yet highly successful usurpation of his brother’s position of religious authority (a less ambi­tious version of which Mr. Bahai seems to have desired to accomplish for himself).

Although the brothers Abbas and Mohammed Ali didn’t fight each other with swords or pistols at dawn, perhaps brotherly fisticuffs could have helped to clear the air. But since they were brought up to be dig­nified religious leaders, they struck the pose of perfect gentlemen and holy men, while passive-aggressively warring against each other for decades over the future direction of the Baha’i faith. We’ll discuss the causes and substance of their dispute in detail later.

For now, the important thing to understand is that Baha’u’llah wanted them both to work together, and wanted the younger brother to succeed the elder if he outlived him. Neither of these intentions of the founder of the Baha’i faith came to pass. Mohammed Ali Bahai broke his father’s covenant by launching a destructive sectarian argu­ment rather than accepting the role of second-in-command and help­ing to spread the Baha’i teachings to new souls, thus deviating from the spirit of Baha’u’llah’s words: “O Ghusn-i-Akbar! (Mightiest Branch) Verily We have chosen thee for the help of My Cause; rise thou in a marvelous assistance.”[5] ‘Abdu’l-Baha also broke the covenant by refus­ing to reconcile with his brother when he later sought an honorable resolution to their conflict, instead condemning him in his will and appointing a different successor, thus departing from Baha’u’llah’s stated plan of succession: “We have surely chosen the Mightiest (Akbar) [Mohammed Ali] after the Greatest (A'zam) [Abbas Effendi] as a command from the All-Knowing, the Omniscient.”[6]

Another important point, often overlooked, is that Baha’u’llah did not teach that his sons should be the only source of authority in the Baha’i faith after his passing. Instead, he taught that a great deal of au­thority should vest in an institution he called the House of Justice, which would resolve questions and make policies not clearly specified in the scriptures. As he wrote:

It is incumbent upon the Trustees of the House of Justice to take counsel together regarding those things which have not outwardly been revealed in the Book, and to enforce that which is agreeable to them. God will verily inspire them with whatsoever He willeth, and He, verily, is the Provider, the Omniscient.[7]

Although ‘Abdu’l-Baha allowed Baha’i Houses of Justice to be es­tablished at the local level, he did not establish an international (“Uni­versal”) House of Justice, reserving all power over the Baha’i faith as a whole to himself alone. It seems unlikely that this was Baha’u’llah’s in­tention. More likely, he intended Abbas Effendi to call for the Baha’is to elect this institution during his lifetime and to serve as its chairman, and for Mohammed Ali Effendi to serve as its vice chairman.

After leading the Baha’is for almost 30 years without a Universal House of Justice, ‘Abdu’l-Baha died and left the reins of authority to his grandson, Shoghi Effendi Rabbani, whom he gave the title of “Guard­ian.” However, he made it explicitly clear in his will that Shoghi Effendi should work together with the democratically elected leadership body, at long last to be created, that Baha’u’llah had originally envisioned. As ‘Abdu’l-Baha wrote:

The sacred and youthful branch, the Guardian of the Cause of God, as well as the Universal House of Justice to be universally elected and established, are both under the care and protection of the Abha Beauty [Baha’u’llah]... Whatsoever they decide is of God....

[C]oncerning the House of Justice which God hath ordained as the source of all good and freed from all error, it must be elected by universal suffrage, that is, by the believers. Unto this body all things must be referred. It enacteth all ordinances and regulations that are not to be found in the explicit Holy Text. By this body all the difficult problems are to be resolved and the Guardian of the Cause of God is its sacred head and the distinguished member for life of that body.[8]

Defying his grandfather’s instructions to create the Universal House of Justice and lead the Baha’i faith in conjunction with its elected members as its chairman, Shoghi Effendi chose to rule unilat­erally. His ministry lasted over 35 years, and during that entire time the House of Justice was never brought into being. This was a choice he made—a choice which violated both the spirit and the letter of ‘Abdu’l- Baha’s will. There were plenty of eminent Baha’is from various nations who could have served capably and admirably on a Universal House of Justice, had it been created, but Shoghi Effendi evidently preferred to hold all power in his own hands—just as ‘Abdu’l-Baha had preferred and chosen in his own ministry.

Following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Shoghi Effendi also chose to excommunicate his relatives who did not show absolute def­erence to his wishes and views. By the end of his life, he had excommu­nicated every one of the descendants of ‘Abdu’l-Baha as well as all the descendants of Baha’u’llah’s third wife. Thus, the entire family of Baha’u’llah—except for Shoghi Effendi himself, his wife Ruhiyyih, and ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s widow Munirih and sister Bahiyyih—ended up expelled from the mainstream Baha’i community and shunned.

To be fair to ‘Abdu’l-Baha, the half-siblings he declared as “Cove­nant-breakers” were actually leaders of a competing Baha’i sect, so there is considerably more justification or at least a reasonable argu­ment for his decision. In the case of Shoghi Effendi, he expelled his family for mostly trivial reasons, over issues of their personal relation­ships, based on an extremely authoritarian interpretation of his au­thority as the Baha’i Guardian.

One of the most disturbing examples was Shoghi Effendi’s excom­munication of his cousin Munib Shahid for marrying a Muslim. In the words of Hassan Jalal Shahid, the last surviving grandchild of‘Abdu’l- Baha:

[R]egarding my brother Dr Munib Shahid of the American University of Beirut (AUB)... His wife Serene Husseini was the daughter of Jamal Husseini. He was a notable of Jerusalem, a prominent and respected Palestinian politician who had been ex­iled by the British to the Seychelles Islands and then to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to put an end to his struggle for an in­dependent Palestine. While there, his daughter Serene wanted to get married to my brother Munib Shahid. She contacted her fa­ther, Jamal Husseini, for his consent. He did not know who Munib Shahid was and asked a fellow exile from Haifa, Mr Tanimi, about him. Mr Tamini told him to consider it an honor that the grandson of Abdul-Baha wanted to marry his daughter. On the recommen­dation, he consented to and blessed the marriage....

My brother was a sincere and true Bahai and tried many times, until the last years of his life to return to the Cause [i.e. the organized Baha’i faith], ... Munib was no Covenant Breaker and died a disappointed man for having been deprived of something that meant so much to him and in which he sincerely believed.[9]

The marriage of one of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s grandsons to the daughter of a prominent Muslim politician could have been an excellent oppor­tunity for interfaith dialogue between the Islamic and Baha’i commu­nities in Palestine. Instead, Shoghi Effendi saw this marriage by his cousin as disloyalty to the Baha’i faith, and expelled him for it—even though the Guardian was never given the authority to veto marriages either by members of Baha’u’llah’s family or by any Baha’i.

Shoghi Effendi also excommunicated both of his sisters and an­other cousin for marrying relatives who were descended from Baha’u’llah through his third wife, Gawhar Khanum. Gawhar’s daughter Foroughiyya Khanum and her husband Siyyid Ali Afnan sided with the Unitarian Baha’is for a while, but eventually reconciled with ‘Abdu’l- Baha. Mr. and Mrs. Afnan’s sons seem to have wanted to move beyond the religious conflicts of the previous generation. One of them, Nayer Afnan, is known to have been friendly with all branches of the family, including the descendants of Mohammed Ali and Badi Ullah Bahai; Negar Bahai Emsallem remembers him fondly. Shoghi Effendi appar­ently felt that this third branch of Baha’u’llah’s family was too liberal in their attitude about “Covenant-breakers,” because they didn’t believe in shunning their relatives who had unorthodox ideas about the Baha’i faith. Thus, he excommunicated all of his relatives who married into that branch of the family.

Conventional wisdom among Baha’is is that Shoghi Effendi was trying to defend his family from the spread of heresy, supposedly ema­nating from Nayer Afnan. But as Mr. Afnan’s daughter and Shoghi Effendi’s niece Bahiyeh Afnan Shahid writes:

Regarding [Foroughiyya Khanum’s] second son, my father Nayer Afnan, he and my mother Rouhanguise Rabbani were mar­ried in 1928 in Haifa. The marriage took place in the Master’s [i.e.

‘Abdu’l-Baha’s] house and the Master’s sister, Bahiyeh Khanum of­ficiated at the ceremony. Present were the Master’s wife Mounireh Khanum, the Master’s daughters and other members of the family as well as Bahai friends. Would things have happened this way if Nayer Afnan was a covenant breaker? ...

For some strange reason my father was designated by Shoghi Effendi... as the plotter and schemer behind most of these mar­riages. His was the evil hand that wove this mesh of marriages, connecting generations of ‘covenant breakers’ with one another, serving sinister schemes that took shape seemingly nowhere but in the Guardian’s mind. He simply could not see a group of cousins and relatives from a family that considered themselves Bahais in every sense of the word, but completely cut off from their roots and their natural milieu. Was it not natural that they should choose each other when they sought husbands and wives?[10]

Most likely, Nayer Afnan’s liberal approach to the Baha’i faith—spe­cifically, his refusal to shun the Unitarian Baha’is among his relatives— is what caused Shoghi Effendi to excommunicate him. Although he may have had a relatively open-minded attitude all along, it is possible that this grandson of Baha’u’llah decided to develop friendships with his Unitarian Baha’i cousins precisely because he objected to the au­thoritarian leadership style of Shoghi Effendi and was attracted to the relatively progressive views of the ostracized members of the family.

One more relative of Shoghi Effendi whom he excommunicated deserves special attention: his cousin Ruhi Afnan, a grandson of ‘Abdu’l-Baha who was a prominent and well-respected teacher of the Baha’i faith. Ruhi Afnan was such a significant figure that the liberal Baha’i leader Ahmad Sohrab wrote a whole book about him and his case, an unauthorized biography entitled Abdul Baha’s Grandson: Story of a Twentieth Century Excommunication, even though Mr. Afnan never supported Mr. Sohrab’s denomination. Here is his summary from that book, of Mr. Afnan’s career as a Baha’i administrator and spokesperson:

Ruhi Effendi Afnan acted as confidential secretary to the Guard­ian of the Bahai Cause for fourteen years; and the records of the Bahai organization show that during that time, from 1922 to 1936, he was constantly in demand in a variety of capacities. In 1924, he appeared in London as Shoghi Effendi’s personal representative and delivered a brilliant address on the Bahai Religion before The Conference of Some Living Religions Within the British Empire. In 1927, he visited the United States as traveling agent and spiritual salesman of the Guardian, championing with fervor and zeal the system of Bahai administration before recognized and declared Bahais. He was an outstanding and honored guest at the 20th An­nual Bahai Convention in Chicago, where he participated vitally in all proceedings; was the guest speaker at Green Acre Bahai Sum­mer School in Maine, and traveled from coast to coast, delivering Bahai speeches before churches, colleges and outside gatherings.

In 1928, we find him in Geneva, Switzerland, where, as the accred­ited representative of the Bahai Cause, he participates in the Con­ference of International Peace Through the Churches. Here, we see him taking the floor, offering some constructive suggestions which, as one report says, were very much to the point, and carry­ing his argument. In 1935, with the Guardian's approval (See Baha ’i News, page 3, October 1935), he pays his second visit to the United States; takes part in the National Bahai meeting in Chicago and, before his departure, addresses a number of local Bahai communities. [11]

Despite Ruhi Afnan’s exemplary record of service to the Baha’i faith, Shoghi Effendi excommunicated him in 1941, stating three rea­sons: (1) that Mr. Afnan’s sister married one of the sons of Foroughiyya and Ali Afnan, all of whom he considered to be Covenant-breakers; (2) that Ruhi Afnan himself married a cousin, one of the granddaughters of‘Abdu’l-Baha, of whom he apparently disapproved; and (3) that Mr. Afnan supposedly made his second trip to the United States without Shoghi Effendi’s approval.[12] On the third point, as Ahmad Sohrab men­tions with documentation, the allegation is simply false. As for the first reason for Ruhi Afnan’s excommunication, it seems that he refused to shun his sister after her marriage, and his continued association with her was unacceptable to Shoghi Effendi. In fact, the main reason for most of Shoghi Effendi’s excommunications of his relatives was that they chose not to shun family members whom they loved.

Although it might have been tempting for an articulate Baha’i evangelist such as Ruhi Afnan to have joined or started a different Baha’i denomination with more respect for believers’ personal free­dom, instead he repeatedly sought to return to the mainstream Baha’i community—as did many other Baha’is and members of Baha’u’llah’s family who had been expelled. In a long and very interesting letter Mr. Afnan wrote in 1970, he recalls, among other things, that:

For twelve years after Shoghi Effendi cast me out of the Cause I regularly wrote a petition—at least once a year—and more often than not, took them to the House [of Shoghi Effendi] myself. Sev­eral times I saw [Shoghi’s wife] Ruhiyyih Khanum who would meet me and end up by rejecting my request. I always wondered whether Shoghi Effendi read those letters or not. One day I asked [Shoghi’s mother] Zia Khanum. She told me that other than myself, many people wrote such petitions, for example Rouha Khanum [Zia Khanum’s sister and Ruhi’s aunt]. Apparently Shoghi Effendi had a special suitcase full of such letters from members of the family, all of which he saved. Zia Khanum added that she herself, every month, sometimes every week, would write such a petition and pour out her heart, in an effort to clarify matters to her son. I don’t know whether that suitcase full of letters still exists. If it does, it would tell the story of those people and the pain they bore.[13]

According to Ruhi Afnan, he was even banned from visiting Baha’u’llah’s tomb, and threatened by Shoghi Effendi’s wife, who informed him that “orders had been given to beat me and throw me out” if he ever went to the Shrine.[14] This only changed as a result of a lawsuit by Kamar Bahai in 1952.[15]

None of Shoghi Effendi’s siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, or even his parents, were ever allowed to return to the organized Baha’i community. They were utterly and permanently shunned, by order of the Guardian and later the Universal House of Justice, which to this day teaches that the Guardian was infallible and therefore all his decisions were automatically justified.

As the facts show, the ministry of Shoghi Effendi was marked by the kind of dictatorial authoritarianism, paranoia and fanaticism that are not usually associated with great religions in the modern era. None of his relatives were even given a hearing and a chance to defend them­selves before a panel of neutral judges before they were excommuni­cated; and once expelled from the fold, their appeals fell on deaf ears and they were either written out of history or recast as villainous char­acters, despite their strong belief in and service to the Baha’i faith.

Perhaps the clearest illustration of the Baha’i Guardian’s attitude can be found in a polemical, triumphalistic history of the Baha’i faith he wrote called God Passes By. In the following passage of that book, he indulges in bone-chilling schadenfreude, recounting with relish the misfortunes, illnesses and deaths of some of the people he considered to be “Covenant-breakers” and taking comically immature potshots at their memory:

[Mohammed Ali Bahai’s] brother, Mirza Diya’ullah,[16] died prematurely; Mirza Aqa Jan [Kashani], his dupe, followed that same brother, three years later, to the grave;... Mirza Muhammad- ‘Ali’s half-sister, Furughiyyih,[17] died of cancer, whilst her hus­band, Siyyid ‘Ali [Afnan], passed away from a heart attack before his sons could reach him, the eldest being subsequently stricken in the prime of life, by the same malady. Muhammad-Javad-i- Qazvini,[18] a notorious Covenant-breaker, perished miserably. ... Jamal-i-Burujirdi,[19] Mirza Muhammad Ali's ablest lieutenant in Persia, fell a prey to a fatal and loathsome disease; Siyyid Mihdiy- i-Dahaji,[20] who, betraying ‘Abdu’l-Baha, joined the Covenant-breakers, died in obscurity and poverty, followed by his wife and his two sons;...

[Mohammed Ali Bahai] was stricken with paralysis which crippled half his body; lay bedridden in pain for months before he died; and was buried according to Muslim rites, in the immediate vicinity of a local Muslim shrine, his grave remaining until the present day devoid of even a tombstone—a pitiful reminder of the hollowness of the claims he had advanced, of the depths of infamy to which he had sunk, and of the severity of the retribution his acts had so richly merited.[21]

As for Shoghi Effendi himself, he and his wife found themselves unable to have children. With no heirs, and having excommunicated every living descendant of Baha’u’llah but himself, there was no one eligible to be appointed as his successor in accordance with the provi­sions of the Will and Testament of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, so the office of the Guardianship became permanently vacant upon his passing. He died suddenly of the Asian flu, at the age of 60, while visiting London in 1957. His grave is located in that city instead of among the Baha’i shrines in Israel, because, according to Baha’i law, a body cannot be moved more than one hour’s journey from the place of death.[22] He failed to leave a will, violating Baha’u’llah’s command that “Unto every­one hath been enjoined the writing of a will,”[23] and thus the Baha’is had no clear guidance for how their faith should be led without a sec­ond Guardian after his passing.

The loss of the Guardianship posed a serious problem for main­stream Baha’is. They had been accustomed to having an individual leader of their faith, and in accordance with the intentions of ‘Abdu’l- Baha expressed in his will, they fully expected that there would be a series of Guardians for generations to come. Shoghi Effendi had written that “In this Dispensation, divine guidance flows on to us in this world after the Prophet’s ascension, through first the Master, and then the Guardians.”[24] Furthermore, he wrote:

Divorced from the institution of the Guardianship the World Or­der of Baha’u’llah would be mutilated and permanently deprived of that hereditary principle which, as Abdu’l-Baha has written, has been invariably upheld by the Law of God. “In all the Divine Dispensations,” He states, in a Tablet addressed to a follower of the Faith in Persia, “the eldest son hath been given extraordinary distinctions. Even the station of prophethood hath been his birth­right.” Without such an institution the integrity of the Faith would be imperiled, and the stability of the entire fabric would be gravely endangered. Its prestige would suffer, the means required to ena­ble it to take a long, an uninterrupted view over a series of gener­ations would be completely lacking, and the necessary guidance to define the sphere of the legislative action of its elected repre­sentatives would be totally withdrawn.[25]

After Shoghi Effendi’s death, the inner circle of Baha’i leaders he had appointed to assist him during his ministry, called Hands of the Cause, decided to establish the Universal House of Justice. It was elected for the first time in 1963—without a Guardian as its chairman— and the Baha’is, who had been taught by Shoghi Effendi to believe in the supreme importance of a line of living Guardians, were expected to put this belief aside yet continue believing that “the Covenant” of their faith was being fulfilled regardless.

One distinguished Baha’i leader named Charles Mason Remey dis­sented and claimed that Shoghi Effendi had intended for him to be­come his successor, on the basis that he had appointed him as the head of an executive body called the International Baha’i Council. Mr. Re­mey attracted some support, because many Baha’is, quite understand­ably, still clung to the teaching of the absolute necessity of a Guardian to lead the faith; but the vast majority of Baha’is rejected his claim, be­cause he was not a “branch” of Baha’u’llah’s family as the Guardians were required to be according to ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s will, and there was no document in which Shoghi Effendi ever explicitly nominated him for the office of Guardian. Mason Remey formed a sect, the remnants of which continue to exist today as a very small Baha’i denomination called the Orthodox Baha’i Faith and three other splinter groups.

Despite all the unexpected changes, controversies, twists and turns we have described, Baha’is today believe that the succession of divine authority from the Bab, to Baha’u’llah, to ‘Abdu’l-Baha, to Shoghi Ef­fendi, to the Universal House of Justice is a perfect, unbroken Cove­nant—that the head of the faith at each stage was infallible and the transitions unchallengeable. As we have seen, the facts reveal that this is only a myth; that the reality is far more complex, more flawed, and indeed more interesting.

Footnotes :

[1] Their half-siblings from their stepmother Kulthum Khanum mostly followed Mirza Yahya. Two other half-siblings from other stepmothers followed Mirza Husayn Ali, as did most of his full siblings. See Appendix B: Families of Baha’­u’llah and the Bab.

[2]   I have, however, listened to the views of both sides, as should anyone inter­ested in Babi and Baha’i history. The Azali view is articulately presented by N. Wahid Azal, a former Baha’i and staunch opponent of the Baha’i faith, in a 2011 lecture at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Stud­ies. The entire lecture can be viewed online, beginning at (Part i of 8).

[3]   Lawh-i-Bisharat (“Tablet of Glad-Tidings”). See Chapter 6, p. 70.

[4]   Denis MacEoin, “From Babism to Baha’ism: Problems of Militancy, Quiet­ism, and Conflation in the Construction of a Religion.” Originally published in Religion, vol. 13 (1983): 220-223. Available online at maceoin_babism_militancy

[5]   "Sacred Tablet” to Ghusn-i-Akbar. See Chapter 10, p. 150.

[6]   Kitab-i-'Ahdi (“Book of My Covenant”). See Chapter 6, p. 94.

[7]   Kalimat-i-Firdawsiyyih ("Words of Paradise”), Eighth Leaf. Official Baha’i translation in Tablets of Bahau’llah Revealed After the Kitab-i-Aqdas (Wilmette, Ill.: US Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1988 pocket-size edition), p. 68.

[8] The Will And Testament of'Abdu’l-Baha (Wilmette, Ill.: US Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1990 reprint), Part One, pp. n, 14.

[9]    Hassan Jalal Shahid, “Comments About Munib Shahid,”

[10]  Bahiyeh Afnan Shahid, “Comments About Sayyid Ali Afnan, Forough Kha­num, and Their Sons,”

[11]  Mirza Ahmad Sohrab, Abdul Baha's Grandson: Story of a Twentieth Century Excommunication (New York: Universal Publishing Co., 1943), pp. 67-68. Em­phasis in original.

[12]  These points were made by Shoghi Effendi in two cablegrams received by the leaders of the American Baha’i community on November 10,1941 and pub­lished in the December 1941 issue of Baha’i News, pp. 1-2. Archives are available online at

[13]   Letter by Ruhi Mohsen Afnan to the Baha’i Spiritual Assembly of Iran, 1970. Translation by Bahiyeh Afnan Shahid, available online at, pp. 20-21.

[14]  Ibid., pp. 28-29.

[15]  See Chapter 33.

[16]  ZiaUllah.

[17]  Foroughiyya.

[18]  Mohammed Jawad Gazvini.

[19]  Also known as Ismu’llah Jamal.

[20] Also known as Ismu’llah Mahdi.

[21]   Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By (US Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1979 second printing), pp. 319-320.

[22]  Kitab-i-Aqdas (“Most Holy Book”), paragraph 130.

[23]  Ibid., paragraph 109.

[24]  Shoghi Effendi, Directives from the Guardian (India/Hawaii, 1973 edition), section 89, p. 34.

[25]  Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah (US Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1991 first pocket-size edition), p. 148.

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