Bahíyyih Khánum

Bahíyyih Khánum in 1895

Bahíyyih Khánum (1846 – July 15, 1932) was the only daughter of Baháʼu'lláh, the founder of the Baháʼí Faith, and Ásíyih Khánum.[1] She was born in 1846 with the given name Fatimih Sultan,[2][3] and was entitled "Varaqiy-i-'Ulyá" or "Greatest Holy Leaf".[4] Brought up through the trying times her family lived through,[5] in adulthood she served the interests of the religion and was even occasionally trusted with running the affairs of the religion and is seen within the Baháʼí Faith as one of the greatest women to have lived.[5][6] Bahíyyih was born in Tehran, initially to great privilege. In 1852, when she was aged 6, her father was arrested and imprisoned, the family's home pillaged and Bahíyyih and her family were forced to live in poverty. Later the same year the family were exiled to Baghdad. As a young girl she opted to remain single, and instead served her parents, especially her mother. During the 1860s a succession of exiles followed including Constantinople and Adrianople. By the time she was 21, Bahíyyih had spent all of her adult life a prisoner and arrived at her final destination, the penal-colony of Acre, Palestine.

With the death of her father in 1892, Bahíyyih was one of the few family members of ʻAbdu'l-Bahá to accept his leadership, and she became his staunch companion. It was also during this time that she assumed leadership over the religion in the 1910s and later in the 1920s. After the death of her brother, she supported the young Shoghi Effendi in his endeavours. Her death in 1932 at the age of 86 devastated the worldwide Baháʼí community. She was beloved and greatly respected by the Baháʼís and the community went into a period of deep mourning for nine months. According to Baháʼís, every dispensation has one particular holy woman or "immortal heroine".[7] In the time of Jesus it was the Virgin Mary, the time of Muhammad it was his daughter Fatima Zahra and during the Báb's dispensation it was Táhirih.[7] Baháʼís believe that Bahíyyih Khánum is the outstanding heroine of the Baháʼí dispensation.[5][6][7][8][9][10]

During the lifetime of her fatherEdit

Tehran, 1846−1852Edit

Born into a family of means in Tehran,[11] she recalls her parents being admired for their service to the poor.[12][13] The exact date of Bahíyyih Khánum's birth is uncertain. She herself stated that her brother ʻAbbás was "two years my senior".[14] Bahíyyih also stated that in 1852 she was aged 6.[14] This means that she was born in 1846, and this was confirmed by Shoghi Effendi.[15] This was common amongst Persians at the time, as even the nobility did not record the exact dates of births of their children, perhaps only the eldest son.[15] Baháʼí scholar Baharieh Ma'ani writes that Bahíyyih Khánum was born in probably late 1846 or early 1847.[16]

As a young girl she was educated in Persian, Arabic and Turkish languages as well as Muslim and Bábí scripture. Her early life was happy; she described how she "loved to play in the beautiful gardens" along with her brother ʻAbdu'l-Bahá.[14] Bahíyyih Khánum spent her early years in an environment of privilege, wealth, and love. The family's Tehran home and country houses were comfortable and beautifully decorated. Bahíyyih Khánum and her siblings— a brother, ʻAbbás, and another brother, Mihdí— had every advantage their station in life could offer. Following the 1852 arrest of her father and imprisonment in the infamous Síyáh-Chál underground prison in Tehran when she was six, the family's home was confiscated and its furnishings plundered. She clearly remembered the shrieks of the Bábís awaiting their death, leaving a strong mark in her later life. She lived out the remainder of her life in privation accompanying Baháʼu'lláh through banishments and prisons often at their own expense by her mother selling marriage gifts but also continuing through her adulthood by choice.[5][8]

Baghdad, 1852−1863Edit

In January 1853 Baháʼu'lláh was banished to Baghdad and he and his family made a difficult voyage from Tehran through snow-covered mountains. After arriving in Baghdad, she recollected her father helping with the house work.[17] For a time Baháʼu'lláh left Baghdad during which time the nominal head of the Bábí religion, her uncle Mirza Yahya, forbade her to leave the house to play with other children[18] or let a doctor visit her newly born brother who needed medical attention — instead leaving him to die. The mutual grief and sorrow which ʻAbdu'l-Bahá, her mother and she felt led them to be constant companions of each other: "I remember so clearly the sorrow of those days" she later remarked.[14] When Baháʼu'lláh arrived after nearly two years of seclusion the family were overjoyed.[19] Bahíyyih Khánum reflected how she was in a "breathless state of expectancy",[20] when Baháʼu'lláh arrived. She was remembered in her youth for her dignity, gentleness, decorum, kindness and silence in public.[21]

Remarking of her teen years, Shoghi Effendi comments that she was entrusted with missions "no girl of her age could, or would be willing to, perform".[22] Giving a rare glimpse into the circumstances of her father's declaration of being a messenger of God in the Garden of Ridvan in Baghdad, Bahíyyih Khánum is reported to have said that Baháʼu'lláh stated his claim to his son ʻAbdu'l-Bahá and four others.[23] In Baghdad Bahíyyih blossomed into a young woman; she was praised for her beauty bearing a striking resemblance to her mother with large grey eyes, a slender figure, golden-brown hair and ivory coloured skin.[24]

Constantinople/Adrianople, 1863−1868Edit

By May 1863 Baháʼu'lláh was exiled next to Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire, and his family went with him.[4] Now aged seventeen, after arriving in Constantinople,[25] Bahíyyih Khánum renounced the idea of marriage.[26] This was very strange for a woman of her rank and era, however it was a request which Baháʼu'lláh gladly accepted.[27] After a short while in Constantinople the family was again exiled to Adrianople. Bahíyyih Khánum describes how she was a strong young woman until the journey to Adrianople.[28] Adrianople proved a very unhappy period for the young Bahíyyih Khánum.[29]

She was 20 at the time of Baháʼu'lláh's poisoning and the machinations of her uncle, Mirza Yahya.[30] She was well aware of the fact that she could be separated from her father and Bahíyyih Khánum comforted her mother and brother when the family heard they were to be exiled separately.[31] Remarking on her role in the 1868 split between Mirza Yahya and Baháʼu'lláh, Shoghi Effendi notes Bahíyyih Khánum was among the most active in encouraging the Bábís to accept the claims of her father.[32]

Acre, 1868−1870Edit

Prison in Acre in which Bahíyyih and her family were imprisoned

In July 1868 the Ottoman government further banished Baháʼu'lláh and his family to the prison-city of Acre, then part of the Syrian segment of the Ottoman Empire.[33] As a young woman of twenty-one,[10] Bahíyyih Khánum entered into Acre as a prisoner.[4][5] This was her fourth place of exile, and her last.[4] Despite her beauty and suitors[24] — she was still determined to remain unmarried,[34] and her father seemed to have advocated this.[35] She was later respected for her choice.[36] When arrived on the bay of Acre, the exiles were disorientated and demoralized.[37] The populace spoke Arabic, which Bahíyyih Khánum understood, and she overheard them mocking and jeering how the family were to be thrown into the sea or imprisoned in chains.[37] She later explained the impact this had on her: "imagine, if you can, the overpowering impression made by all this upon the mind of a young girl, such as I was then. Can you wonder that I am serious, and that my life is different from those of my countrywomen?".[37]

On initial arrival in the prison of Acre food was scarce and Bahiyyih Khánum remembers Baháʼu'lláh giving up food for the feeding of children in the group.[38] The family were locked in a small cluster of cells which were covered in dirt and sewage, so much so that Bahiyyih Khánum fainted a number of times, "of my own experience perhaps this is the most awful".[39] The period was distressing for Bahiyyih Khánum, as it was for many of the Baháʼís, due to the death of three Baháʼís and hostile behaviour of the surrounding population; in particular the death of Mírzá Mihdí, Bahiyyih Khánum's youngest brother at twenty-two, destroyed any morale which was left.[39] She gathered and kept her brother's blood-stained clothes after he died in 1870.[12]

Later in Acre, 1870−1892Edit

The "Mansion" of Bahjí

After the death of her brother in 1870, the people of Acre started to respect the Baháʼís and in particular, ʻAbdu'l-Bahá,[14] ʻAbdu'l-Bahá was able to arrange for houses to be rented for the family, the family later moved to the Mansion of Bahjí around 1879 when an epidemic caused the inhabitants to flee. Bahíyyih was 23 when she left the harsh prison. Despite the unhappy start, Acre was the place of some of the happiest times of Bahíyyih Khánum's life.[8] With ʻAbdu'l-Bahá's marriage to Munírih, she had a companion of the same age and the two became close friends of each other.[40] The Baháʼís realised that it was unlikely Bahíyyih Khánum would ever marry and she was respected for her choice of singlehood over matrimony at a time when marriage was seen as obligatory for a young woman.[34] Bahíyyih Khánum helped her mother and father with serving pilgrims who came and visited the family. She was always concerned over her delicate mother's heath and served her diligently.[41] Baháʼu'lláh saw his daughter as consolation and solace describing "how sweet thy presence before Me; how sweet to gaze upon thy face, to bestow upon thee My loving-kindness, to favour thee with My tender care".[42]

One of the heartaches of Bahíyyih Khánum was the death of her mother in 1886. She had been very close to her mother since childhood and the death left Bahíyyih with a void in her life.[43] From her youth Bahíyyih had emulated her mother and seen her as the epitome of the perfect woman. With the death of her mother, Navváb in 1886, Baháʼu'lláh gave her the title of "the Greatest Holy Leaf", and she took over the role of head of the household — managing the household and hosting events for the women pilgrims and other visitors — an arrangement that continued when ʻAbdu'l-Bahá was head of the religion.[44] Six years passed when – in 1892 – her father died. Bahíyyih was distraught at the loss of her father. With her father's death in 1892 she was the only surviving member of her family to choose to support her brother when he was named head of the religion in 1892, though first she had to recover from severe mourning which caused her to become thin and feeble for a time.[45][46] Bahiyyih Nakhjavani has characterized her as having a sleepless vigilance, a tact, courtesy, extreme patience and an heroic fortitude.[47]

Religious roleEdit

Bahíyyih, known as "the Greatest Holy Leaf".

First Western pilgrimsEdit

It was in 1898 that the first Western pilgrims visited ʻAbdu'l-Bahá and Bahíyyih in Palestine.[48] The westerners included Phoebe Hearst, Lua Getsinger, Ella Goodall Cooper, the first African-American Baháʼí Robert Turner, the very young May Maxwell, amongst others.[49] Despite her poor health, Bahíyyih Khánum received these pilgrims.[1] The pilgrimage profoundly affected Bahíyyih Khánum and was a source of happiness for ʻAbdu'l-Bahá's family in the penal-colony.[50] Due to cultural and religious reasons of Acre Bahíyyih spent much of her time with the female pilgrims rather than the male ones.[51] Ella Goodall Cooper describes her as "tall, slender and of noble bearing" and her face as "feminine counterpart of ʻAbdu'l-Bahá's" with "understanding eyes".[52] The pilgrims remembered her quietness, demure and gentle behaviour.[53] Lady Blomfield writes that Bahíyyih Khánum was "passionately attached",[24] to her brother and the memory of her parents. She describes her "sense of humour",[24] and "remarkable" intelligence.[24] Shortly after the pilgrimage, Bahíyyih wrote a letter to a Persian Baháʼí woman writing:

A number of your spiritual sisters, namely the handmaidens who have embraced His Cause, have arrived here from Paris and the United States on pilgrimage. They recently reached this blessed and luminous Spot and have had the honour to prostrate themselves at His Holy Threshold and to behold the radiant face of ʻAbdu'l-Bahá, the Centre of the Covenant of Almighty God — may my life be offered up as a sacrifice for His sake. We have now the pleasure of their company and commune with them in a spirit of utmost love and fellowship. They all send loving greetings and salutations to you through the language of the heart.[42]


In 1908 Young Turks freed all political prisoners under the Ottoman regime and Bahíyyih Khánum was declared free.[54] She was only 21 when she entered the penal colony,[10] and when freed was aged 62.[55] ʻAbdu'l-Bahá entrusted her with the remains of the Báb when they arrived in Acre on 31 January 1899,[47][56] and were housed in her room for some ten years in the house of ʻAbdu'lláh Páshá.[57] The portraits of Baháʼu'lláh and the Báb and other relics were likewise kept by her except during World War I when she along with the rest of ʻAbdu'l-Bahá's family, and Americans Edith Sanderson and Lua Getsinger, stayed in the residence of the village head of Abu Sinan.[58] ʻAbdu'l-Bahá also entrusted her with keeping his last will and testament.[47]

With her newfound freedom, Bahíyyih publicly began her charitable endeavours. She opened up an orphanage in her home for non-Baháʼí and Baháʼí children, oversaw their education and taught them "prayers, reading and writing, home management, embroidery, sewing, cooking" amongst others.[59] As "head of the household" Bahíyyih was in control of looking after the numerous pilgrims from the East and West who flocked to visit her and ʻAbdu'l-Bahá.[59] She also won the respect and affections of the locals. Women from Islamic background would ask Bahíyyih to cut the shrouds in which they would wear when they die so they could rest in peace.[59] In her memoirs Margaret Randall writes that "everyone turned [to her] for help and advice. She was gentle and loving, but strong, too."[60]

In 1914 World War I began which affected the Palestine area. The communication between ʻAbdu'l-Bahá and the worldwide Baháʼí community came almost to a stand still. Furthermore, Haifa was gravely affected by the food shortage. It was through this that Bahíyyih further exercised her humanitarian services. She and her brother gave out their large store of grain to the poor and needy of the area,[61] even assisting the British army.[62] It was reported that the inhabitants flocked to the house of ʻAbdu'l-Bahá where Bahíyyih cooked for them and gave them rations. The services that ʻAbdu'l-Bahá and Bahíyyih gave during the war, won them admiralty amongst the British government and ʻAbdu'l-Bahá was knighted.[63]


She was given the position of acting head of the religion repeatedly including during ʻAbdu'l-Bahá's journeys to the West between 1910 and 1913 when she was in her later 60s, and then again when Shoghi Effendi was away on several trips between 1922 and 1924 when she was in her later 70s.[64] This role of leadership is a rare position for a woman to be in, historically.[1][6] In 1910 she was appointed head of the faith by ʻAbdu'l-Bahá whilst on his protracted travels to the West.[65] During this period Bahíyyih Khánum dealt with the affairs of the Holy Land and outside.[1] These included meeting dignitaries,[1] making speeches on ʻAbdu'l-Bahá's behalf, meeting officials of both sexes and offering medical help for the sick and poor.[66] Bahíyyih also dealt with the spiritual and administrative guidance of the worldwide Baháʼí community which entailed writing letters of encouragement to communities around the world.[66] She kept in constant correspondence with her brother during this period.[67] Juliet Thompson described Bahíyyih Khánum as having shining "great blue eyes, eyes that had looked upon many sorrows and now were ineffably tender".[68]

In 1921 ʻAbdu'l-Bahá died and Bahíyyih Khánum sent telegrams, with the assistance of Saichiro Fujita,[69] announcing the death which, among other places, arrived at Wellesley Tudor Pole's home in London where it was read by Shoghi Effendi.[70][71] As Shoghi Effendi assumed the leadership of the religion, he commented in particular how he felt Bahiyyih Khánum's support during the difficult period following the death of ʻAbdu'l-Bahá.[1][5] Again Bahíyyih was named head of the faith in 1922.[72] Assisting her was a committee who could not do anything without Bahíyyih's signature.[73] She taught the believers the provisions of the will and testament of ʻAbdu'l-Bahá.[74] She encouraged the Baháʼí women of Persia particularly to involve themselves in Baháʼí activities,[75] and explained the provisions of the Covenant of Baháʼu'lláh.[76] Her letters of encouragement to the Baháʼí communities provided solace for the community who were mourning the death of ʻAbdu'l-Bahá.[77] One letter reads:

At the time when Christ rose out of this mortal world and ascended into the Eternal Kingdom, He had twelve disciples, and even of these, one was cast off. But because that handful of souls stood up, and with selflessness, devotion and detachment, resolved to spread His holy Teachings and to scatter abroad the sweet fragrances of God, disregarding the world and all its peoples, and because they utterly lost themselves in Christ—they succeeded, by the power of the spirit, in capturing the cities of men's hearts, so that the splendour of the one true God pervaded all the earth, and put the darkness of ignorance to flight.[42]

She was greatly respected and had instructed all Baháʼís to follow Shoghi Effendi through several telegrams she had sent around the world announcing the basics of the provisions of ʻAbdu'l-Bahá's will and was witness to the events relatives took in violation of provisions of the will.[78] Bahíyyih Khánum had devoted much of her life towards protecting the accepted leadership of the Baháʼí Faith and after Shoghi Effendi's appointment there was little internal opposition until after her death when nephews began to openly oppose Shoghi Effendi over Baháʼu'lláh's house in Baghdad.[79] She stood faithful to the Covenant of Baháʼu'lláh over years of infighting within Baháʼu'lláh's family that led to the expelling of many of them.[1][5][6]


During the late 1920s Bahíyyih Khánum's health began to seriously deteriorate.[1] Plagued by illness and pains, she was living an uncomfortable life.[80] Pilgrims note that she found it hard visiting the grave of her father and the Báb, and needed help to stand and sit.[81] She was noted for spending hours in vigils, prayers and mediation.[82] Marjorie Morten describes that although she was marked with age she still retained a "former loveliness" alluding to her beauty in her youth.[1] Bahíyyih Khánum died on 15 July 1932, a few weeks after Keith Ransom-Kehler reached her homeland in her name.[1][83] Shoghi Effendi marked her death by stating that the Heroic Age of the Baháʼí Faith was closed.[84] Shoghi Effendi sent this telegram:

Greatest Holy Leaf's immortal spirit winged its flight Great Beyond. Countless lovers her saintly life in East and West seized with pangs of anguish. Plunged in utterable sorrow humanity shall ere long recognize its irreparable loss. Our beloved Faith, well nigh crushed by devastating blow of ʻAbdu'l-Bahá's unexpected Ascension, now laments passing of last remnant of Baháʼu'lláh, its most exalted member. Holy Family cruelly divested of its most precious great Adorning. I for my part bewail sudden removal of my sole earthly sustainer, the joy and solace of my life. Remains will repose in the vicinity of the Holy Shrines. So grievous a bereavement necessitates suspension for nine months through Baháʼí world every manner religious festivity. Inform Local Assemblies and groups hold in befitting manner memorial gatherings to extol a life so laden with sacred experiences, so rich in imperishable memories. Advise holding additional Commemoration Service of strictly devotional character in the Auditorium of the Mashriqu'l-Adhkár.[42]

Her funeral was a large occasion, similar to the funeral of ʻAbdu'l-Bahá, with eulogies, prayers and poems recited by all different religions and races.[85] A memorial luncheon was held in her honour in August 1932 in which food was given to the poor and needy in her memory.[86]


The grave of Bahíyyih Khánum within the Monument Gardens.

After her death, Shoghi Effendi wrote a 16-page handwritten eulogy for Bahiyyih Khánum.[87] Also nine days of prayer vigil were asked of the Baháʼís living in the Holy Land at her temporary grave site.[47] Munírih mourned "you have melted us in the furnace of separation and remoteness".[88] Nine months of official mourning were declared for the Baháʼís to honour her memory while personal celebrations were asked to be withheld for a full year.[21]

The first step taken by Shoghi Effendi in creating the administrative Centre of the Baháʼí Faith was the acquisition of land on Mount Carmel in close proximity to the Shrine of the Báb, and the interment of the remains of Bahíyyih Khánum were placed under the Monument of the Greatest Holy Leaf, followed by the transfer of the remains of the Mirza Mihdi and Navváb in December 1939.[56][89] This location is now in the Baháʼí gardens downhill from the Baháʼí Arc on Mount Carmel at the Baháʼí World Centre.[1] Shoghi Effendi had finished the translation of Nabil's Narrative: The Dawn-breakers in 1932 and dedicated it to her.[47] Bahíyyih Khánum had devoted much of her life towards protecting the accepted leadership of the Baháʼí Faith and after Shoghi Effendi's appointment there was little internal opposition until after her death when nephews began to openly oppose Shoghi Effendi over Baháʼu'lláh's house in Baghdad.[79]

Anniversary of deathEdit

A worldwide commemoration was held for her in 1982 and was marked with the publication of a compilation of the references to her from the heads of the Baháʼí Faith and including extracts of 92 of her letters.[42] In July 1982, during the first gathering ever held in the permanent Seat of the Universal House of Justice, a seminar on her life was held and the architect confirmed that he had deliberately designed the dome of the Seat to be reminiscent of the dome on her monument.[47] This commemoration was framed by five international conferences held in her honour — Dublin, Ireland 25–27 June, Quito, Ecuador 6–8 August, Lagos, Nigeria 19–22 August, Canberra, Australia 2–5 September, and Montreal, Quebec, Canada 2–5 September 1982. Stories of the Greatest Holy Leaf, adapted by Jacqueline Mehrabi, tells anecdotes about the life of Bahiyyih Khanum specifically for children.[90]

See alsoEdit

Others buried in the Monument Gardens:

The Baháʼí Holy Family:

A person she is often compared to: Táhirih


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  2. ^ Momen 2007, p. 8
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