One of the ideals of the Baha’i Faith which I adore is that each and every human being is equal in the sight of God and that we are really made from the “same dust”. As Baha’u’llah beautifully writes in the Arabic Hidden Words:
O children of men! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your heart how ye were created.
In the Baha’i Faith we do not have levels or any other sort of category for spirituality; no clergy: no bishops; no cardinals, etc. We are regard each other as, as fingers of one hand, leaves of one tree and drops of one ocean. That’s why I have a very tough time with the following cable from Shoghi Effendi, in which he tells the Baha’is that his brother has recently married a Christian woman:
Faithless brother Hussein, already abased through dishonorable conduct over period of years followed by association with Covenant-breakers in Holy Land and efforts to undermine Guardianâ€™s position, recently further demeaned himself through marriage under obscure circumstances with lowborn Christian girl in Europe. This disgraceful alliance, following four successive marriages by sisters and cousins with three sons of Covenant-breaker denounced repeatedly by â€?Abduâ€™l-Bah?? as His enemy, and daughter of notorious political agitator, brands them with infamy greater than any associated with marriages contracted by old Covenant-breakers whether belonging to family of Muhammad-â€?Al? or Bad?â€™uâ€™ll??h.
The choice of the words “lowborn” certainly got my attention! As you probably know, Shoghi Effendi was a serious student (some would argue, master) of the English language. He used words as tools and was considered an inspired composer and translator. So, I wonder, why did he choose such loaded words?
I guess I wasn’t the only Baha’i who wondered that. Apparently after receiving the cable, the Baha’is of England wrote to the Guardian and inquired what he meant by it. On the surface, the expression “lowborn” seems in contrast with Baha’i values and teachings. It is, however, congruent with the then classist mentality that permeated upper-class English society. Could it be that Shoghi Effendi picked up a little of that from his years at Baliol?
Anyway, in response, the Guardian’s secretary writes back:
Regarding his cable concerning Hussein: he has been very surprised to note that the terms â€?low-born Christian girlâ€? and â€?disgraceful allianceâ€? should arouse any question: it seems to him that the friends should realise it is not befitting for the Guardianâ€™s own brother, the grandchild of the Master, an Afn??n and Aghs??n mentioned in the Will and Testament of the Master, and of whom so much was expected because of his relation to the Family of the Prophet, to marry an unknown girl, according to goodness knows what rite, who is not a believer at all. Surely, every Bah??â€™? must realise that the terms low-born and Christian are definitions of a situation and in no way imply any condemnation of a personâ€™s birth or the religion they belong to as such. We have no snobbery and no religious prejudice in our Faith. But the members of the Masterâ€™s family have contracted marriages which cannot be considered in any other light than disgraceful, in view of what â€?Abduâ€™l-Bah?? wished for them.
I’m even more baffled by this hodge-podge answer, in which the Guardian’s secretary seems to dig a deeper hole.
The secretary writes that Shoghi Effendi is “surprised” that the terms he used gave rise to any concerns. This was before political correctness, but why would any Baha’i not question something which appears so contradictory to the teachings and spirit of the Faith? what does ‘lowborn’ mean anyway? and is it used, as opposed to ‘highborn’? was May Maxwell (Shoghi Effendi’s wife) ‘highborn’?
In any case, the secretary goes on to cite the station of the descendants of Baha’ullah and the Bab. Which, again, totally misses the point. Abdul’Baha, in fact, as the exemplar of the Faith, used the title ‘servant of Baha’ and considered Himself as an equal to any other person. He helped the poor, fed the hungry, healed the sick. He never considered himself above another person, for any reason. Certainly not because He was the son of Baha’u’llah and Center of the Covenant.
How can we then deduce that His descendants (even farther away from the Blessed Beauty) should in any way believe themselves to be superior to others because of their DNA?
The use of the words “unknown girl”, “goodness knows what rite” and “who is not a believer at all” is even more bizarre. Unknown to whom? I’m sure she is known to her acquaintances, family, friends and her new husband. To whom else should she be known to? She certainly seems unknown to Shoghi Effendi as he doesn’t even use her name (some would consider that in itself derogatory). Did the Guardian not even inquire who she was? And the melodramatic expression of “goodness knows…” is also silly. The couple would’ve probably married through Christian or Baha’i rites (or both). That Shoghi Effendi doesn’t know by which rite(s) his brother will be getting married alludes to just how little he knew or cared about his own brother’s wedding. And the last one (“who is not a believer…”) is probably the most shocking. If it is not to hold this against her, why even mention that she isn’t a Baha’i? Since Abdu’l-Baha actually encouraged Baha’is to marry both across racial and religious lines, why would his grandchild’s marriage to a Christian girl be “disgraceful”?
The secretary then goes on to say that the words “lowborn” and “Christian” are merely “definitions” of a situation. That’s debatable in and of itself because they are used as adjectives. But even if they are simply definitions, they are certainly not objective ones – rather they are used to evoke an emotion and seem to be seeping with bias. And finally the secretary goes out of his way to say that this is not snobbery, nor religious prejudice. A pschychiatrist would have a field day with such a blatant projection but I’ll leave that one alone.
All I can understand from this whole incident is that Shoghi Effendi did not personally approve of his brother’s choice. Which is fine. Really. But why not just come out and say so without all the convoluted and strained justifications?
Wouldn’t that have saved everyone a heap of trouble?