Rabbani, Ruhiyyih (1910–2000)

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Rabbani, Ruhiyyih (1910–2000)

Preeminent member of the Bahai faith. Name variations: Mary Sutherland Maxwell. Born Mary Sutherland Maxwell in New York in 1910; died in Haifa, Israel, on January 19, 2000; only child of William Sutherland (an architect) and May (Bolles) Maxwell; married Shoghi Effendi Rabbani, the last official leader of the Bahai faith (died 1957); no children.

Following the death of her husband Shoghi Effendi Rabbani (known as Shoghi Effendi), the last official leader of the Bahai faith, Ruhiyyih Rabbani (born Mary Sutherland Maxwell) became the preeminent member of the governing legislature of the Bahais, who number more than 5 million and believe in the spiritual unity of all mankind. Because of her link with Bahai's spiritual roots, Rabbani was accorded particular respect within the religious community. "She was totally venerated by millions of people," said Dr. Firuz Kazemzadeh, a Bahai and former Russian professor at Yale, following Rabbani's death in January 2000. "There grew up over the years an adoration for her, unlike anybody else in the Bahai community."

The Bahai religion was founded in Iran in 1863, by Mirza Hoseyn, known as Bahaullah (Glory to God). Some of the first Western Bahais included Phoebe Hearst , mother of William Randolph Hearst, and Rabbani's grandmother who in 1898 was among the first Americans to make a pilgrimage to Haifa, the center of the Bahai faith. Rabbani's own parents, William and May Maxwell , were also prominent Bahais and visited Haifa several times, taking their young daughter with them. On one such family visit, Shoghi Effendi asked for Mary's hand in marriage. The proposal surprised her family; although the two had known one another from childhood, there had been no dating between them and a betrothal had not been arranged. "The impression one gets is that he sort of knew her and decided that it was time that he should get married," said Frank Lewis, a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Yale and also a Bahai.

Rabbani, who had no children, worked closely with her husband, serving as his secretary and performing research for his theological writings. Following his death, she was chosen to serve as one of the nine Hands of the Cause, the body which ran the religion until a permanent council (Universal House of Justice), of which she was also a member, was established in 1963. In her position, Rabbani worked to promote the Bahai faith around the world and was always available to meet with pilgrims to Haifa, where she made her home. "People treated her recollections and interpretations of doctrine with a special degree of reverence," said Lewis. Rabbani wrote a biography about her husband, The Priceless Pearl, and also authored a small volume of poetry which reflected the loneliness she endured after her husband's death. "She grieved inside, but you wouldn't have known about it unless you read those poems," said Kazemzadeh. "She was a very strong person."


"Obituaries," in The New York Times. January 23, 2000.

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