A 'capable and devoted' Baha'i, Husayn Ruhi, was also a 'capable and devoted' British agent!

A gathering of Bahá'ís with Mírzá Abu'l-Faḍl in Cairo, April 1907 (seated, 3rd from right), on the occasion of the pilgrimage to 'Akká of Thornton Chase, the first American Bahá'í (seated next to him) and Mr and Mrs Arthur S. Agnew (seated across the table). Also identified are Hájí Mírzá Níyáz, one of the early believers of Persia, loved by all, who lived many years in Cairo until his death in 1919 (seated at front, with white turban); Husayn Rúhí, who owned and directed two schools in Cairo (at table, centre foreground); and Shaykh Muhyiddín Sabrí Sanandají al-Kurdí (standing, hatless, below the tree at left), a disciple of Mírzá Abu'l-Faḍl and a well-known scholar and Bahá'í teacher invited by 'Abdu'l-Bahá to go to Tunisia and North Africa.

He appears as a bit character in generally British-focused narratives of the Revolt, and intelligence during the First World War. T. E. Lawrence briefly refers to Ruhi as “more like a mandrake than a man” (perhaps in reference to his multiple wives and numerous children). Storrs, who spent many more months with Ruhi, gave him the codename “the Persian Mystic” and described Ruhi as “a fair though not profound Arabist, and a better agent than scholar.” Ruhi himself, a petite spy, translator, poet, and textbook author spent decades working for British officials, diplomats, spies, and educationalists, including a fifteen-year stint in the Department of Education of the Mandate for Palestine.

His interactions with colleagues in the Mandate bureaucracy, as well as the British individuals who had hired him, point to the chameleon-like character of the man himself.

Ruhi grew up in Persia after the death of his father, and received some schooling in Chicago as part of a Baha’i mission to that city, earning a license in the English language. Upon his return, Ruhi taught English in Cairo at a variety of schools, and published a bi-weekly magazine that promoted the Baha’i religion.

By 1912, Ruhi had married two of the three wives he would marry (possibly simultaneously), and had fathered two of the twelve children he would raise. Ruhi founded two schools in Egypt, one for boys and one for girls, which closed at the end of the First World War.

While Storrs [Sir Ronald Storrs (Britain’s Oriental Secretary, spy, and later governor of Jerusalem)] viewed him as Persian, Ruhi’s colleague Abdul Latif Tibawi, a fellow inspector of education in the Mandate for Palestine, defined him in passing as Arab, although in later works described Ruhi in more detail as an Egyptian “of Persian origin” and an “Arabic-speaking Persian.”

...a lack of attachment both to the Ottoman Empire and to the Arab community among whom Ruhi lived (and married) facilitated his career with different British administrations. Ronald Storrs preferred employing Baha’i individuals, believing them to be naturally suited to intelligence (one would presume due to their frequent need to keep their religion secret).* Ruhi’s fitness for his post as an intelligence officer, from the point of view of his employers, is clear.

*[Storrs noted that the “leading Persian of Jedda, a Bahai,” not only protected British agents, but also supplied the British with information himself. Ronald Storrs, “Hejaz Events, Excerpt from Diary,” 27 September 1916, Middle East Politics and Diplomacy, 1904–1950: The Papers of Sir Ronald Storrs (1881–1956) from Pembroke College, Cambridge (Marlborough, Wiltshire [England]: Adam Matthew Publications, 1999), Reel 5, Section II, Box 4. Storrs also employed a Baha’i doctor, asserting that this doctor, “being of Ruhi’s spiritual persuasion – can be trusted to keep you well and intimately informed on professional and non-professional matters.” Letter from Ronald Storrs to Colonel Wilson, 1 August 1916. Middle East Politics and Diplomacy, Reel 5, Section II, Box 4.]

From 1914 to 1920, Husayn Ruhi, and briefly his father-in-law, worked as agents for the British government across the Middle East.

Husayn Ruhi translated documents; wrote clandestine reports on the local situation in Cairo, Mecca, and Jeddah; carried messages and funds from the British to the Hijaz and back again; and generally contributed to the fomenting of the Arab Revolt. Ruhi’s official title was “confidential secretary,” working from 1914 to 1916 for Ronald Storrs, then British Oriental Secretary living in Cairo. From 1916 to 1918, Ruhi became the “confidential secretary to the British Agency Jeddah,” under Colonel Cyril Wilson. In transferring Ruhi’s services, Storrs commended Ruhi to Wilson: “he is delivered over to you body and soul. He is to consider himself not only your eyes and ears, but also if necessary your hands and feet. He may even, should an especially unsavoury occasion present itself, be called upon to represent your nose.”

Husayn Ruhi (second from left) with Emir Abdallah bin Husayn al-Hashimi (the first king of Transjordan). Photograph by Ronald Storrs, “Suleiman Qabil, Hussein Ruhi, Emir Abdulla Bin Husain al-Hashimi, Sheikh Abdullah Ba Naji at Jidda,” October 1916, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, London.

Ruhi is best known for his translation of the Husayn-McMahon correspondence.

Elie Kedourie in particular criticized Ruhi’s Arabic as “shaky” with “grammatical mistakes” that indicated a lack of the necessarily facility to deal with the correspondence. Kedourie argues that certain mistranslations of difficult words led to confusion over the territory promised to Sharif Husayn. Kedourie also attributes to Ruhi the “florid style” of McMahon’s letters to Husayn, citing a British representative at Jeddah’s statement that “Ruhi used to address the King (Hussein) with the most extravagant titles when he wanted anything out of him.” It seems that the Sharif returned the favor, as Ruhi’s translation of one letter of the Sharif reads, “To our most ingenious, respectable and honourable [M]ister [S]torrs. Verily, I present to you my propensity and I ask for your health and rejoice.” Leaving aside the question of Ruhi’s Arabic, his English indicates a lack of fluency. Ruhi’s reports and his translations of Sharif Husayn’s correspondence, written in pen, are replete with crossed out words and phrases, words inserted after having completed a line, misspelled words, and prepositions used incorrectly.

One British captain noted Ruhi’s invaluable services, lauding his ability to find information due to “his energy, unique knowledge of the workings of men of the stamp concerned in this conspiracy and his selection of agents.” The captain further praised Ruhi’s dedication to his job, stating that “at great personal risk, underlying extreme discomfort and abuse, being imprisoned on several occasions he (Ruhi) traversed the whole [Suez] canal zone gaining information of the greatest value.” Ruhi not only collected intelligence, he also offered “disconcerting suggestions” of tactics that could be employed against those who were not friendly to the Revolt or the British. Ruhi told Storrs to “take strict measures” to prevent Rashid Rida from travelling to the Hijaz and convincing the people to “ignore the English.” Ruhi floated the idea of deporting Rida to Malta.

In his own evaluation of his espionage abilities, Ruhi boasted to Storrs, “I am known here as an Alem or Mohammedan Theologian as I went into mosques and delivered lectures and interpreted some verses. …All of the great people here are my friends. I picked some of them whom I found really pro-English and they may be a great help to our work.” It is of course impossible to verify Ruhi’s account of his own exploits. It is interesting that Ruhi sold himself as being able to pass as a Muslim scholar, despite the fact that he was Baha’i, and a somewhat lackluster academic overall. Ruhi’s infiltration of Mecca and ability to preach in a mosque would also likely have appealed to British officials’ overarching focus on religious affiliation as the primary motivating factor behind Middle Easterners’ actions.

Ruhi’s motivations for working for the British, beyond his paycheck, remain obscure. However, in that same report to Ronald Storrs in which Ruhi boasted of his ability to charm the Sharif, and indeed pull the wool over the eyes of the citizens of Mecca, he begged Storrs to support his school, by convincing others to support it. Ruhi’s passion for the school he had founded clearly increased his need for funds. He claimed the school could be propped up by Egyptian awqaf. Ruhi asserted that he would “live loyal to the British government” for his entire life, so long as they supported his school, claiming, “If my school will fall I will be the saddest fellow upon earth.”

Sadly, for Ruhi, both the boys and girls sections of the school he founded would close during the war, due to “force of circumstance.” But Ruhi was able to find new work in education: He maintained a certain loyalty to the British, and continued his tendency to inform, in his new post as an inspector of education in Mandate Palestine.

In 1917, Hussein Ruhi was awarded 100 pounds in lieu of a title, which was feared would preclude him from ever working again secretly on behalf of the British government.

Ruhi also became the focus of some international ire: the French mission in the Hijaz complained that Ruhi was spying on them.

Ruhi apparently ceased his work in espionage in 1919. He received the titles of Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire (CIE) and Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE). In March of 1920, he became an inspector with the Department of Education in Jerusalem.

Ruhi’s unique career demonstrates the variety of experiences government educators’ possessed, but also points to the complications of post-Ottoman nationality. Although Ruhi, like many others, was now a citizen of Palestine, the category of Palestinian nationality – and, to some degree, nationality itself as a way of defining identity – ill fitted him, due to his languages, birthplace, family, and religion.

In returning to the profession of education, Ruhi also authored Arabic language textbooks specifically focused on Palestine for use in its government schools. Ruhi’s texts illustrate his unique perspective and perhaps a desire to pander to British preferences, as the books concentrate on the specific territory of Palestine, as opposed to either Greater Syria or the Arab world, and include Jewish as well as Arab narratives. His history of Palestine, al-Mukhtasar fi al-ta’rikh, printed in 1922, listed its most important sources as the Qur’an and other holy books, contemporary American and Middle Eastern works of history and literature, as well as Titus Flavius Josephus’s writings. Ruhi’s history begins with the story of Abraham and ends with Ibrahim Pasha. It also contains a surprisingly positive portrayal of certain aspects of Jewish history in the region, describing the Maccabees, for example, as a family of patriotic heroes. Ruhi’s geography of Palestine (al-Mukhtasarfi Jughrafiyat Filastin) was written up briefly in al-Muqtaṭaf, which noted that the book included the political, natural, and administrative geography of Palestine as well as more than twenty maps. This work begins with a Muslim blessing (bismillah al-rahman al-rahim) and includes a discussion of Palestine’s Jewish colonies and an overview of its educational system, as well as a somewhat pointed drill that required students to calculate the meager proportion of Palestine’s inhabitants attending school at all. Husayn Ruhi even drew some of the book’s maps himself. Moreover, in another unique turn, this Arabic language geography was published by the London Jews Society, a British missionary society geared toward converting Jews to Christianity and encouraging Jews’ resettling in Palestine.

In the Mandate, Ruhi’s presence was in some ways an affront to his peers. One Palestinian academic derided Ruhi as simply Ronald Storrs’s “protégé,” whose appointment in the education department was incongruous at best. Khalil al-Sakakini, who also worked as an inspector in the Mandate Department of Education and authored grammar textbooks, held up Ruhi as an example of problems with the department as a whole. In a somewhat lengthy series of complaints to his son, Sakakini listed individuals employed by the British administration in Palestine whom he thought were undeserving of their salaries and status, specifically including Husayn Ruhi.

Husayn Ruhi retired from service in the Mandate for Palestine in 1935. He returned to Cairo where he founded a school, as he had before his service with the British. Ruhi died in 1960. Ruhi remains best remembered for his translations and reports. Yet, his preference for British-backed governments continued in the careers of two of his sons. ‘Ali Husayn Ruhi and Hasan Husayn Ruhi followed their father’s example working as educators and government officials in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. ‘Ali taught in Transjordan from 1928 to 1945. He composed several mathematics and science textbooks used by Arabic-speaking students throughout the region, specifically in the government schools of Transjordan and Palestine. ‘Ali seems to have also renounced his father’s faith, or at least hidden it, as he defined himself as Muslim on his application to teach in Transjordan.

Husayn Ruhi’s journey from education to espionage and back is hardly characteristic of educators or ethnic or religious minorities in the Middle East. However, his story raises (although does not answer) a number of questions and issues connecting to schooling, governance, and intelligence in the twentieth-century Middle East. By choosing Ruhi, a Baha’i of unclear nationality, the British presumed, to some degree correctly, that they could command a greater sway over Ruhi’s loyalties than those of other Egyptians, Persians, or Palestinians.

(Hilary Falb Kalisman - The Little Persian Agent in Palestine: Husayn Ruhi, British Intelligence, and World War I, Jerusalem Quarterly 66)

Read complete article here :



Additional points from Baha'i sources:

The journey began after Mirza Asadu'llah had returned to Persia from the Holy Land and had recovered the casket (of the Bab's remains) from its hiding place in Tehran. He then set off with the assistance of other believers, including a ‘capable and devoted’ Baha'i named Husayn Ruhi, who was the son of Haji ‘Ali-‘Askar, a distinguished Bahai who had attained the presence of the Bab. Like his father, Husayn Ruhi had been in prison in Acre with Baha'u'llah.

(Michael Day, Journey to a Mountain - The Story of the Shrine of the Bab)

Ruhi's father 'Ali-'Askar-i-Tabrizi?

Haji Haji 'Ali-'Askar was one of the notable merchants of Tabriz, and a believer from the time of the Bab. At last the persecutions forced him to leave his home town and he emigrated with his brother and family to Adrianople, where he settled down and made a living by peddling small wares. He was arrested and sent with Baha'u'llah to 'Akka, where he passed away in AH 1291 (AD 1874)....

...Muhammad-Javad-i-Qazvini next records in his tract the murder of two other men, previous to the murder of Siyyid Muhammad-i-Isfahani and his two accomplices. He names them as Husayn-'Ali of Kashan, known as Khayyat-Bashi, and Haji Ibrahim, also of Kashan; but he does not name those who murdered them. Apparently, these two men of Kashan, who had always been fickle, had been in communication with the Azalis, although they lived with the companions in Khan al-'Umdan. Muhammad-Javad writes that one day, in the bazar, Haji Ibrahim denounced Aqay-i-Kalim, in his presence, before the Mufti. This reprehensible behaviour roused the ire of the companions, and some of them (unnamed) murdered those two, and buried them in a room in the inn. This happened at a time when Baha'u'llah, because of the mounting animosity of the Azalis, had ceased admitting anyone into His presence. However, Siyyid Muhammad had noted their disappearance and had reported it to the authorities. But, at the time, there was no reason to suspect any crime. After the murder of the three Azalis, during the interrogation of the companions, the murder of the two Kashanis came to light. Again, Muhammad-Javad does not mention any names, but merely records that the authorities were told that the two had died of cholera, and lest all should be taken away and put into quarantine, they had been immediately and quietly interred in a room of the inn. The authorities exhumed their corpses and had them buried beside the Azalis.

Another point worth noting in the tract by Muhammad-Javad-i-Qazvini is that whereas the wife of Mirza Yahya, sister of Mirza Rida-Quliy-i-Tafrishi, has been named elsewhere as Badri-Jan, Muhammad-Javad calls her Badr-i-Jahan. And the sixteen men detained in the Khan-i-Shavirdi for six months are named as follows: Haji 'Ali-'Askar-i-Tabrizi, his son, Husayn-Aqa, and his brother, Mashhadi Fattah; Haji Ja'far and his brother, Haji Taqi; Muhammad-Javad-i-Qazvini, himself; Aqa Faraj-i-Sultanabadi; Aqa Riday-i-Shirazi; Mirza Mahmud-i-Kashani; Haji Faraju'llah-i-Tafrishi; Aqa 'Azim-i-Tafrishi; Aqa Muhammad-'Aliy-i-Isfahani; Aqa Muhammad-'Aliy-i-Yazdi; Darvish Sidq-'Aliy-i-Qazvini; Aqa Muhammad-Ibrahim-Nayrizi, known as Amir-i-Nayrizi; and Haji Aqay-i-Tabrizi.

(Baha'u'llah - The King of Glory by Hasan Balyuzi)

For some time 'Abbás Effendi bore with these alarming circumstances, until latterly he set himself to stir up the fanaticism of a man named Hájji Mírzá Hasan of Khurásán, one of the leading Bábís in Egypt, and commissioned him to proceed to America to repair this rupture. The latter obediently accepted this commission, took with him as interpreter Husayn Rúhí the son of Hájji Mullá 'Ali of Tabriz, and went to America, where he remained some time. At first he tried to bring back Ibráhím Khayru'lláh to Abbás Effendi, but, not succeeding in his efforts, he busied himself for a while in declaring and proving to his friends the sanctity of 'Abbás Efendi. But he failed to achieve his object, and returned to Egypt, where he was stricken with imbecility, and is at present under treatment in Egypt.


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