The year was 1922, and a young Iranian man, only 24 years old, had arrived at the foot of the Swiss Alps. His face was round and young, but his eyes were old and heavy with worry.
His name was Shoghi Effendi, and just weeks earlier, he had learned the news that his beloved Grandfather had died, and it now fell to him to lead a nascent, embattled religion. He had come to the Alps to, in his words, “conquer himself” — that is, to come to terms with the end of the sort of life that most of us are familiar with, before taking up the mantle of authority of the most precious institution the world had ever known.
In, perhaps ironically, his most human and relatable moment, Shoghi Effendi later said:
I didn’t want to be the Guardian. I knew what it meant. I knew that my life as a human being was over. I didn’t want it, and I didn’t want to face it. So as you’ll remember, I left the Holy Land. And I went up into the mountains of Switzerland, and I fought with myself until I conquered myself. Then I came back and I turned myself over to God, and I was the Guardian.1
In a faith with a history bejewelled by providential turns, few circumstances could have been more providential — more fortunate — than that this weighty fate had fallen to this particular young man. With the luxury of hindsight, we know that this could have been no accident. Over the next 36 years, Shoghi Effendi would both soar in heaven and endure hell to carry the Faith of his Great-grandfather and Grandfather forward.
So much of what we take for granted as Baha’i life today was set in motion by Shoghi Effendi. The Shrines and gardens of the World Centre, the character of pilgrimage, the details and functioning of the administrative order, these were his handiwork.
One of the many fascinating aspects of his life was the way in which Shoghi Effendi embodied the union of East and West in the Faith he now headed as Guardian. Born in Akka in 1897, he was fully a Middle Easterner, with ancestral ties both to Baha’u’llah on his mother’s side and to the Bab on his father’s (itself a fascinating physical manifestation of his spiritual inheritance and destiny). But from a young age, we see him quickly placing one foot boldly in the West, and in doing so, becoming a sort of bridge, a colossus, bringing together and holding together two very different cultures.
The Guardian was legendary in his ability to work, and reportedly lived on four hours of sleep a night. But when he did seek cultural enrichment, he turned to LPs of opera, his favorite being Madama Butterfly. Never given to frivolity, his nightstand reading was Edward Gibbons’ weighty History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He loved tennis and could hold his own on court. When he sought respite from the burdens and sorrows of leadership, it was often in the Swiss Alps. One marvels at his utter mastery of English, written at such a high level as to send native speakers to their own dictionaries in order to keep up with the rich texture and subtlety of his thought. And when it came time to translate the Holy Writings into the other myriad languages of the world into which the Faith was spreading thanks to his non-stop efforts, he stipulated that they be translated not from their original Persian or Arabic, but from English.
Significantly, he married a Westerner. And when illness took his life much too soon, in London, he would even be buried in the West; in death as in life, he continues to bring Easterners to the West just as he brought Westerners to the East.
No aspect of his leadership could have been more difficult than maintaining unity by dealing with misguided souls within the nascent Baha’i community itself, and most tragically, within his own family. As if to underscore the absolute supremacy of spiritual heritage over physical heritage, one by one, the Guardian was forced to cast Baha’u’llah’s own family members out of the Faith that bore His name. Who among us would have the fortitude, the unwavering vision, to deal with members of our own family thusly? But such was the importance of unity and Covenant to the Faith, then as now.
His unifying influence extended to the interpretation of the Writings. As an official biography of the Guardian states:
He safeguarded the unity of the Faith by acting, as Abdu’l-Baha before him had acted, as the authoritative interpreter and expounder of the Baha’i sacred writings. All questions regarding interpretation were to be directed to him. Although he did not have the authority to alter in any way what Baha’u’llah or Abdu’l-Baha had revealed, he performed the crucial tasks of clarifying points which may not have been clearly understood and of elaborating upon previously revealed teachings. To this end, he wrote thousands of letters to individual believers and to Baha’i communities around the world. Through such guidance, the Baha’is remained unified in their clear understanding of the Faith’s sacred writings.2
We also marvel at the tumultuous times through which he was called to lead the Faith. His descriptions of the twin processes of growth and decay were being illustrated more dramatically with each passing day: a global depression, a collapsing world order most evident on his doorstep in Europe, and an apocalyptic world war that must have felt to most like the very end of the world. Through it all he guided the rapid expansion of this relatively tiny faith with a steady hand.
It’s impossible to overstate Shoghi Effendi’s heroism and his station. Truly, in the critical time that the Baha’i Faith was germinating from an exotic seed in a faraway land to a wondrous new flower, rapidly spreading across the Earth, he was, as Abdu’l-Baha said, “…the Sign of God on Earth.”