Madame Ruhiyyih Rabbani, leading Baha'i dignitary, passes away in Haifa

An author, filmmaker and lecturer who cared deeply for the environment and indigenous peoples, she held a preeminent position as a Bahá'í representative; millions mourn.

HAIFA, Israel - Madame Rúhíyyih Rabbáni, the preeminent international dignitary of the Bahá'í Faith, passed away on 19 January 2000.

An author, poet, filmmaker and lecturer, Madame Rabbáni was a tireless champion for peace, environmental conservation, and respect for the rights of indigenous peoples.

As a Hand of the Cause, the highest position occupied by individuals in the Bahá'í Faith, she also played an important role in promoting the unity and integration of the Bahá'í community over the years. She traveled extensively, visiting some 185 countries and territories to encourage the spiritual and moral development of Bahá'í communities.

In addition, as the widow of Shoghi Effendi, who headed the Bahá'í Faith from 1921 to 1957, she was the Bahá'í world's last remaining link to the family of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, who headed the Faith from 1892 to 1921 and was the eldest son of the Faith's Founder, Bahá'u'lláh.

Thousands of memorial services have been held by Bahá'í communities around the world, and the Bahá'í International Community received condolences from heads of state and government, including US President William Clinton, French President Jacques Chirac and Canadian Governor General Adrienne Clarkson. Other persons of prominence, including HRH The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, also sent condolences. Her passing was widely reported in the world's news media, including The New York Times, Le Monde, the Associated Press, Agence France Presse, and the British Broadcasting Corporation.

"Down the centuries to come, the followers of Bahá'u'lláh will contemplate with wonder and gratitude the quality of the services - ardent, indomitable, resourceful - that she brought to the protection and promotion of the [Bahá'í] Cause," wrote the Universal House of Justice, the international governing council of the Bahá'í Faith, in a message to the Bahá'í world that announced Madame Rabbáni's passing.

She represented the Universal House of Justice on numerous occasions, both at Bahá'í community events and in contacts with government officials and other dignitaries. On its behalf, she presented its statement, "The Promise of World Peace," to the Secretary-General of the United Nations in November 1985, and attended the second Bahá'í World Congress held in New York City in November 1992.

In the course of her travels, Madame Rabbáni was received by many heads of state and government and other prominent figures as diverse as: 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 Secretary-General of the United Nations, Javier Pérez de Cuellar.

"To an extraordinary extent, Madame Rabbáni's own work exemplified the priority the Bahá'í Faith gives to the unification of humankind," said a statement issued by the Office of Public Information of the Bahá'í International Community following her passing. "The greater part of the last 35 years of her life were devoted to travels that took her to 185 countries and dependent territories, and that served as a major factor in integrating the world's several million Bahá'ís into a unified global community."

Born as Mary Sutherland Maxwell

The only child of William Sutherland Maxwell, a premier architect of Montreal, Canada, and his wife May Bolles, Madame Rabbáni's given name was Mary Sutherland Maxwell. She was born in New York on 8 August 1910.

Both parents were prominent Bahá'ís of their day. Mr. Maxwell designed the superstructure of one of the Faith's most holy sites, the Shrine of the Báb, which adorns the slope of Mt. Carmel in Haifa, where the Faith has its world headquarters. He himself received the designation of Hand of the Cause. Madame Rabbáni's mother was the first Bahá'í in Europe and another important Bahá'í personage of her day.

In her youth, Madame Rabbáni was active in Bahá'í activities in and around Montreal, where she was raised. At the age of 15, she became a member of the Executive Committee of the Fellowship of Canadian Youth for Peace. At 21, she was elected to the local Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Montreal, the local Bahá'í governing council there.

Madame Rabbáni's education was wide-ranging. She attended a Montessori school as a young girl, then studied with tutors and for a time attended McGill University in Montreal. She also began to write at an early age, working on various books, plays and poetry.

On 25 March 1937, the young Miss Maxwell married Shoghi Effendi Rabbáni, who was then head of the Bahá'í Faith, and took the name Rúhíyyih Rabbáni. Known as the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith, Shoghi Effendi was the great-grandson of the Faith's Founder, Bahá'u'lláh.

For some sixteen years, she served as Shoghi Effendi's chief secretary, helping him with the voluminous correspondence that his position required, and traveling to represent him.

Yet, Madame Rabbáni's reputation as the preeminent member of the worldwide Bahá'í community derived from more than her relationship by marriage to Bahá'u'lláh's family.

In 1951 Shoghi Effendi appointed her to the Bahá'í International Council, a nine-member body that served as a precursor to the Universal House of Justice. In 1952, she was elevated to the rank of Hand of the Cause.

In these positions, she played a crucial role in effecting a successful transition in the leadership of the Faith after the passing of Shoghi Effendi in 1957. With eight other Hands of the Cause, she managed the affairs of the Faith from 1957 until 1963, when the Universal House of Justice was established and its first nine members elected, in accordance with the Bahá'í scriptures.

Globe-girdling travels

After 1963, Madame Rabbáni undertook a series of continental and oceanic tours, visiting many thousands of Bahá'í communities around the world.

In 1964, she visited India, Sri Lanka, Sikkim and Nepal, traveling more than 55,000 miles. In 1967-68, she visited every country in South America, after laying the cornerstone for the first Bahá'í temple in the region, which is located in Panama.

From 1969 to 1973, Madame Rabbáni undertook a grand tour of Africa, driving with a companion in a Land Rover for some 36,000 miles, visiting 34 countries. During the tour, she was received by 17 heads of state, including Emperor Selassie of Ethiopia, President Senghor of Senegal, President Houphouet-Boigny of the Ivory Coast, and King Soubhuza of Swaziland.

On another occasion, she visited nearly 30 countries in Asia and the Pacific within a span of some seven months. And during a 1975 trip to Latin America, she produced a full-length film, called "The Greenlight Expedition," which documented her visits to the native peoples of South America, focusing on her travels in the jungle areas of Suriname, Guyana, and up the Amazon River in Brazil.


Rapport with indigenous peoples

Throughout her travels, she took a special interest in the plight of illiterate villagers and indigenous populations. In her speeches and writing, she repeatedly expressed the view that the fundamental decency, spirituality, intelligence and uprightness which distinguishes the core of human nature is more often to be found among people in remote areas than in the materialistic civilizations of the West.

"Probably the greatest crime of the white man is that in his folly and conceit in the great power of his money-civilization, he has made other men feel inferior," she wrote in 1961. "How deep this acid has bitten into the souls of other men I suppose we white people can never know."

Her rapport with indigenous peoples won great friendship among them. She was given the name "Natu Ocsist" (Blessed Mother) by the Blackfoot Indians of Canada, she was adopted into the Eagle Tribe of the Tlingit Indians of Alaska, and she was adopted by the grandson of the famous Sioux Indian Chief, Sitting Bull, and given the name "Princess Pretty Feather."

A person of prodigious interests and capabilities, Madame Rabbáni, in addition to being an administrator and world traveler, was an author, poet, lecturer, and film producer. Her several books include The Priceless Pearl, a full-length 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 HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. Out of her concern for the environment, she supported the activities of the World Wide Fund for Nature, addressing a fund-raising banquet at Syon House in London in 1988 that launched its influential "Arts for Nature" initiative. She was also present at the 1994 World Forestry Charter Gathering, held at St. James's Palace. Her love for the arts involved her in the planning and direction of the restoration of a number of historic buildings associated with the Bahá'í Faith.

In 1996, Madame Rabbáni was honored by Brazil's highest legislative body, the Chamber of Deputies. In a two-hour solemn session commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Bahá'í Faith in Brazil, Madame Rabbáni was honored in speeches by 14 representatives of all major political parties as a defender of the environment, a promoter of world peace and unity, and a protector of the rights of indigenous peoples.

Worldwide commemorations

Upon learning of her passing, Bahá'í communities around the world organized memorial services and sent messages of condolence.

"Our Community prays that this extraordinary soul wing its flight with the same intrepidity that characterized her life on earth and we are consoled with the certainty that, after nearly half a century..., Amatu'l-Bahá finally reunites with her Guardian," wrote the local Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Maringá, Parana, in Brazil.

On the worldwide web, sites were established where individuals could post remembrances. Verity Adib Bidenjeri posted a story about a time when Madame Rabbáni visited a village outside Bangalore, India.

"Indian villagers are very hospitable people, especially if you show kindness and respect towards their culture," Verity Bidenjeri wrote." They offer you to eat of their bizarre dishes as a courtesy to their visitors. [Madame Rabbáni] sat on the floor with her legs crossed Indian style, then wet the banana leaf that was spread before her (Indian villagers use them as plates for their food), and started eating with her hands as they all did, not showing the slightest discomfort when consuming the hot and spicy curries.

"The friends were baffled and could not believe their eyes. Later when asked, she said that it was her love for Bahá'u'lláh, that made it the tastiest dish she had ever eaten."

U.S. President William Clinton sent his condolences to the Bahá'ís of the United States, saying: "To read of Rúhíyyih Rabbáni's wide-ranging interests in literature, the environment, the arts, and of her pursuits is to understand in small part what her loss means not only to your community, but also to the world. Please know that our thoughts are with you and the entire Bahá'í community."

Madame Rabbáni was laid to rest in Haifa on 23 January 2000. About 1,000 people attended the funeral, including Mr. Chris Greenshields, Minister-Counsellor of the Canadian Embassy; Mrs. Marsha Von Duerckheim, Consul-General of the U.S. Embassy; Mr. Ariel Kenet of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Dr. Roman Bronfman, Member of the Knesset; Mr. Amram Mitzna, the Mayor of Haifa; and Mr. Shmaryahu Biran, the Mayor of Acre. Dr. Nissim Dana of the Ministry of Religious Affairs represented the Israeli Government.

Many of the Bahá'í Faith's senior officers attended, including members of the Universal House of Justice, international Counselors, and members of some 80 national Bahá'í governing councils from as far away as Mongolia and Samoa. The simple ceremony consisted of readings from the Bahá'í sacred scriptures.

More Photographs of Madame Rabbáni