A New Biography of Ruhiyyih Khanum for Youth

It is always a pleasure to hear when Hussein Ahdieh and Hillary Chapman have collaborated on a new book! Their most recent project is published by the Australian Baha’i Publishing Trust and it’s a biography of Amatu’l-Baha Ruhhiyyih Khanum for youth. Over the years I have heard many wonderful stories about her and I am so delighted that this book is out in the world.

Hussein kindly agreed to tell us a little bit about it. Here’s what he shared with us:

Can you tell us a little bit about Ruhiyyih Khanum ?

Ruhiyyih Khanum was a Hand of the Cause and she was the wife of the beloved Guardian. Often when we think of her, we think of these incredible distinctions. I feel immensely fortunate to have met Ruhiyyih Khanum several times at the Baha’i World Centre, in New York City and in other places around the world. Alongside the entire Baha’i world, I have always had incredible admiration and respect for her. Writing this book helped me learn a great deal more about Ruhiyyih Khanum, a link to the Holy Family, and my admiration and respect for her grew in the process.

Before she was Ruhiyyih Khanum, Mary Sutherland Maxwell was born on August 8th, 1910 at the 5th Ave Hospital in New York City. She was of Scottish background from her father’s side. Her mother was May Maxwell a devoted Baha’i and a lifelong servant of Abdu’l‐Baha. Her mother traveled and served the Faith throughout her life and this often kept her away from young Mary. Notwithstanding the physical separation, May wrote many beautiful letters to Mary confirming her love and affection for her, and also teaching her spiritual truths and lessons. May established the first Montessori school in Canada in their home so that Mary could benefit from this unique form of education.

Her childhood and youth were full of amazing experiences, including meeting the beloved Master during His visit to Canada when He stayed in the Maxwell’s home and young Mary was just 2 years old. There is so much more I could share about this incredible hero of the Cause, but these are a few initial thoughts that come to mind.

What inspired you to write this book?

Author Hussein Ahdieh

Our inspiration in writing this book was to familiarize young people with the amazing life and contributions of Ruhiyyih Khanum. Much of the written materials about Ruhiyyih Khanum are geared towards adults and most often when we think about her, we think of her travels as a Hand of the Cause and of her marriage to the Guardian of the Faith.

Our goal was to compile stories focused particularly on the earlier periods of Ruhiyyih Khanum’s life and to write a book that reminds all of us, especially the youth, of how incredible a person she was from the earliest days of her childhood. In every way, she truly was a vibrant, tireless modern hero, and her services from every period of her life are exemplary for the youngest amongst us.

What was something you learned in the process of writing the book?

I learned so much in writing this book. Here are just a few things that really touched my heart: 

• She played an immense role as a helpmate and shield for Shoghi Effendi.

• During her younger days, she extensively traveled around the United States teaching classes on the first publication of The DawnBreakers.

• She was actively engaged in teaching efforts in Germany for 18 months in the mid 1930s, while the Nazi movement inexorably was growing and the Baha’i Faith was banned.

• She personally searched and found a plot for Guardian’s burial and designed the grave site monument. 

Who is the audience? What do you hope your readers will take away long after they finish the book?

The book is mostly for youth and young adults. But it is also for Persian friends who may not be familiar with Ruhiyyih Khanum’s younger days of service to the Cause and the details of her marriage to Shoghi Effendi and her many efforts to assist him.

After the Guardian’s passing, Ruhiyyih Khanum was the surviving link to the Holy Family and a stellar example of what Shoghi Effendi termed “spiritual descendants of the dawn-breakers.” 

Why is it important for us to learn about the spiritual giants of the Faith?

We often talk about the giants of the Heroic Age like Tahirih, Quddus and Vahid. We have to realize that the Formative Age had its own heroes, like Ruhiyyih Khanum, who advanced the Faith tremendously. She travelled the world, going to inhospitable climates, enduring difficult conditions to the Faith to humble people and dignitaries alike.

Could you tell us little about your partnership with Hillary Chapman?

Many years ago, my good friend Hillary and I met in the lobby of the New York Baha’i Center. We casually discussed the idea of writing a history of the Nayriz upheavals, my ancestors and the early believers of the Faith. This led to the book Awakening, which was published by the Baha’i Publishing Trust in the US. Around the same time Tatiana Jordan joined us. We have been collaborating every since, writing six books together.

We’d love to hear a little bit about some of the information imparted in the book. What was life like for Ruhiyyih Khanum during the Second World War?

The conflict between Arabs and Jews as well as British involvement made for a very dangerous environment. The port of Haifa was bombarded. Shoghi Effendi and Ruhiyyih Khanum spent their time preparing and publishing the book God Passes By which covers the first 100 years of history of the Baha’i Faith. At the same time, she learned the Persian language. During this period preparations were made to build the Shrine of the blessed Bab. Its model became available for viewing in 1944. The architect was Ruhiyyih Khanum’s father, William Sutherland Maxwell.

Can you tell us more about the marriage between Shoghi Effendi and Mary Maxwell?

In January 1937 Mary Maxwell and her mother, May, were in Haifa. While there Shoghi Effendi’s mother approached May and told her about her son’s interest in marrying her daughter. The marriage took place on March 24, 1937 in a simple and low-key manner. Mary was given the title Amatu’l-Baha Ruhiyyih Khanum (Handmaiden of Glory). In the official announcement of the marriage, Shoghi Effendi referred to their marriage as the “Union of East and West.”

The life of the new bride was not an easy one. During the first few years of her marriage Mary had to adjust to Eastern culture and its customs. When the family of the Guardian left the Faith as covenant breakers, Ruhiyyih Khanum became Shoghi Effendi’s sole emotional support. She assisted him over the years in many ways in the fulfillment of his demanding duties. On November 4, 1957 Shoghi Effendi unexpectedly passed away in London.

Thank you so much, Hussein, for sharing this with us!

You can purchase this wonderful new book for youth at a variety of book retailers including Bahaibooks.com.au in Australia, Bahaibookstore.com in the United States and Amazon. You can also find out more by visiting the book’s website: www.ruhiyyihkhanum.com

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Sonjel Vreeland

In her innermost heart, Sonjel is a stay-at-home parent and a bookworm with a maxed out library card but professionally she is a museologist with a background in English Literature. She currently lives on Prince Edward Island, an isle in the shape of a smile on the eastern Canadian coast. Sonjel is a writer who loves to listen to jazz when she’s driving at night.

Sonjel Vreeland

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