Heroines of the Baha’i Faith by Brent Poirier



Bahíyyih Khánum, titled the Greatest Holy Leaf, Copyright © Bahá’í International Community  PDF available HERE



The Greatest Holy Leaf possessed, in the Words of Baha’u’llah,

“a station such as none other woman hath surpassed,” and is, in the words of Shoghi Effendi, “comparable in rank to those immortal heroines such as Sarah, Asiyih, the Virgin Mary, Fatimih and Tahirih, each of whom has outshone every member of her sex in previous Dispensations.” (God Passes By, p. 347)

Shoghi Effendi wrote what I feel is the truest love-letter ever written, when Bahiyyih Khanum, titled “The Greatest Holy Leaf,” passed into the Abha realm. Letter of July 17, 1932  In his tribute to her, handwritten on 14 pages, Bahiyyih Khanum the beloved Guardian describes the scope of her services to the Cause of God throughout the ministries of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha, and the first decade of the Guardianship. It is a magnificent portrayal of the unfathomably rich character of Khanum. Another fascinating portrayal of her character was written by Marjory Morten, a fine writer, a colleague and contemporary of Juliet Thompson and the young Marzieh Gail in New York, and who was at one time engaged to Khalil Gibran. You can read her remarkable essay here: The Magnificent Character of The Greatest Holy Leaf

Janet Khan has written a superb and in-depth examination of the Greatest Holy Leaf. Prophet’s Daughter: The Life and Legacy of Bahiyyih Khanum (also available there for purchase as an e-book)

You can download and read tributes by Baha’u’llah, the Master and the Guardian to the Greatest Holy Leaf, and a marvelous collection of her own letters here, in the book “Bahiyyih Khanum”. This is perhaps the best way to learn more about Khanum.

Bahiyyih Khanum was the acting Head of the Faith for five or six years. During the Master’s journey to the West, He entrusted the day-to-day affairs of the Cause to Khanum, and during Shoghi Effendi’s extensive retirements to Switzerland during the early years of the Guardianship, he did the same. It was the Greatest Holy Leaf, the sister of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, who cabled the Bahá’í World early in 1922 that Shoghi Effendi was the newly-appointed Guardian.  When the keys to the Most Holy Shrine were seized by Badí’u’lláh, and the Guardian, unable to do otherwise, left for many months for Switzerland, it was she who marshaled the forces of the worldwide Bahá’í community to approach the British authorities in Jerusalem and recover the keys.  In the Guardian’s absence, she wrote scores of letters to communities throughout the Bahá’í world, and these constitute the bulk of the section of the book “Bahíyyíh Khánum” comprising her letters; most of them were written in the two years following the ascension of the Master. These letters unfolded to the believers the significance of the Will, and incalculably bolstered their love and loyalty towards the Guardian of the Faith.

As is seen from her letters, she had a profound grasp of the significance of the Master’s Will very early in the Guardianship.  One wonders how she gained such an insight.  Was it as a result of her own great station, or is this another example of how the Guardian used her as an instrument through whom he could address and educate the friends?  It was she who first conveyed the news—in a message penned by Shoghi Effendi himself—that the Will and Testament had appointed him as the Guardian of the Cause and the Head of the House of Justice.  Whether the insights she displayed in her letters are as a result of her own spiritual powers, or the result of interpretations shared with her by Shoghi Effendi, we may well never know. 

 What is sure is that this relationship was characterized, on the one hand, by Shoghi Effendi’s intense love and appreciation of the station of his great-aunt, and on the other by her exemplary obedience and loyalty to the branch chosen by her beloved Brother.  It was truly one of the great relationships in all of history.  The letters written by the Greatest Holy Leaf to the Bahá’ís throughout the world during the early days of the Guardianship, demonstrate the eyes with which Khánum saw Shoghi Effendi—just as his eulogy of her shows the depth of his love and the heights of his admiration for her.  When Shoghi Effendi returned from Switzerland, due to Khánum’s strenuous efforts, he returned to a community bonded to him in devotion, longing to serve him, and turning to him with full hearts in obedience to the Will.  Such was the effect of the Master’s Will, and of Khánum’s letters to the Bahá’í world, demonstrating the true spirit of obedience to that Will – the Master’s Covenant.





Titles given to Martha Root include:  “Archetype of Baha’i itinerant teachers”, “Leading Ambassadress of His Faith”, “The foremost Hand raised by Baha’u’llah since Abdu’l-Baha’s passing”, “Pride of Baha’i teachers, whether men or women, in both the East and the West”. (Shoghi Effendi, “God Passes By,” p. 386, )

It takes courage to approach our neighbors and invite them to learn about the Cause of God, or join youth groups.  We can learn habits of courage from the great Hand of the Cause of God Martha Root. Martha exhibited great courage and trust in God, in her determination to bring the Divine Message to the people living in the Andes Mountains of South America:

     “…Martha was never one to sacrifice a destination because of troublesome obstacles, inconvenient weather, or mode of traveling. She would leave Buenos Aires and cross the Andes to reach the west coast of South America, where she would make her way north to Panama. The journey was always hazardous, but in the winter the risk and dangers mounted alarmingly. Martha’s friends tried unsuccessfully to dissuade her. A newspaper article described the journey she was about to take: ‘If you would consider riding around the edge of the Woolworth building [then one of the world’s tallest buildings] (when it is covered with ice and snow) on a gentle mule a safe pastime, then have no fears regarding the inconveniences in crossing the Andes in winter.’ Stories of frozen faces, fingers, and toes reached Martha, but she was adamant, determined to fulfill ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s hope of taking the message up the west coast of South America and into Panama…

        “The trip would begin by train, then shift to mule-back . . . The trip by mule-back over the ‘top of the world,’ for the Andes are among the highest ranges, the Aconcagua rising to a height of 23,300 feet, was thrilling enough for the most sensational. To pray the Greatest Name among these minarets of God was to glimpse the glory of the Eternal, Unknowable. The ancient trail led 10,400 ft. above sea level. The people on mule back were infinitesimal specks clinging to mighty terraces that bear no other appearance of humanity except the cavalcade. As ‘ants in an endless and boundless forest’ so they huddled on the edge of jagged peaks, frozen chasms, and stiffened mountain torrents. Everybody felt very small and a wonderful feeling of camaraderie sprang up. Fortunately the sun shone brightly and the acute cold was not so terrible as all had expected.

         “A detour through one dark tunnel took over an hour in stumbling, slipping blackness in which the frightened mules shied and fell. Martha, as her mule plunged downward into the mouth of the tunnel gripped the pommel, threw her body far back, closed her eyes and prayed the ‘Ya Allah El Mustaghath’ for all. . . .Later, out from the tunnel, when the procession came to precipitous downward slopes towards Chile, Martha could not even see that ‘one inch’ margin that had been promised by the man in his newspaper account – to her this was by far the most dangerous part of the journey. So it was with tremendous joy she saw the men getting off their mules and walking farther in down the mountain side. She did the same, for the mules would sometimes slip a yard in this perpendicular path and they were frightened also. Taking the guide’s hand they made the descent together and when they could not walk they could run! The warm sun had melted the crisp snow just enough that they could get a foothold.. They stopped every few minutes to breathe as one’s breath is very short in this altitude. Some fainted, some had “puna”, which is bleeding of the nose and ears. . . . The descent was finally complete, and the other side of the Andes was a victorious reality. . . .  Later, in describing this Andean crossing in winter, Martha said, ‘I wore three suits of woolen underwear, two sweaters, two coats and a steamer rug, and then nearly froze to death.'” (“Martha Root, Lioness at the Threshold,” by Mabel Garis, pp. 103-106)

We, too, can learn from her and develop the courage to present the Baha’i Message to our neighbors. Baha’u’llah calls on us to, “with faces joyous and beaming with light, associate with your neighbor . . . and to help him embrace the ancient Faith of God.”

Martha wrote to the Master in 1918, saying that she was thinking of traveling the world and teaching the Baha’i Faith. The Master responded,

“My hope from the blessings of His Holiness Baha’o’llah is that thou mayest forget rest and composure and like unto a swift-flying bird, thou mayest reproduce the melody of the Kingdom and engage in songs and music in the best of tunes. . . . All ears are alert for the summons to the Most Great Peace. It is therefore better for thee to travel now around the world, if this is conveniently possible, and roar out the call of the Divine Kingdom. Thou shalt witness great results and extraordinary confirmations.”

She sent a detailed report of her first teaching trip to South America to Abdu’l-Baha, who wrote to her,

“It is clear and evident that the power of the Kingdom is aiding thee, that the glances of the eye of His loving kindness are turned toward thee, the hosts of the Supreme Concourse are helping thee, and the power of the Holy Spirit is supporting thee. Before long the results of this mighty undertaking will be uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of all men. Therefore be thou assured that this call to the Manifestation of Baha’u’llah, this proclamation of the Word of God and the promulgation of His Covenant shall influence stone and clay, how much more the children of men…. In brief, thou art really a herald of the Kingdom, a harbinger of the Covenant. Thou art self-sacrificing, and showing kindness to all the peoples of the earth. Thou art now sowing a seed that in the long run will yield thousands of harvests. Thou art now planting a tree that shall everlastingly put forth leaves, blossoms and fruit and whose shadow shall grow in magnitude day by day.”

Shoghi Effendi wrote of her:

“…this indomitable soul has, by virtue of the character of her exertions and the quality of the victories she has won, established a record that constitutes the nearest approach to the example set by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá Himself to His disciples in the course of His journeys throughout the West.” (God Passes By, p. 386)




In His Will the Master had placed the Hands of the Cause under the direction of the Guardian of the Cause. During the first 25 years of the Guardianship, Shoghi Effendi only appointed Hands posthumously. The first Hand of the Cause he appointed during that believer’s lifetime was Amelia Collins – several years before he appointed the First Contingent of the Hands of the Cause of God.

You can read more about Milly Collins here including beautiful statements from the pen of Shoghi Effendi about her: HAND OF THE CAUSE OF GOD AMELIA COLLINS

“The high rank you now occupy, and which no Baha’i since the Master’s passing has ever held in his own lifetime has been conferred solely in recognition of the manifold services you have already rendered…” Shoghi Effendi

Among the multitude of her services, Milly Collins purchased several national Baha’i centers; 19 temple sites and endowments for the Faith in Africa, Europe Central America, South America, and Persia; properties at the three summer schools in the USA at Geyserville, Louhelen and Green Acre; in the Holy Land she purchased the Western Pilgrim House, the magnificent gate at the Most Holy Shrine, and the Temple land on the promontory of Mount Carmel; she furnished the International Archives, and embellished the gardens at the Most Holy Shrine; she travel taught in every Baha’i community in the USA and Canada, raised up the first all-Indian Spiritual Assembly at Macy, Nebraska; funded the publication of Baha’i literature, and helped to dedicate the Mother Temple of Australia. She served on the National Spiritual Assembly of the USA and several of its committees, the International Baha’i Council and was its Vice-President; she served as Shoghi Effendi’s secretary, she was a Hand of the Cause of God and one of the Nine Hands in the Holy Land; and she provided funds sufficient for the Hands of the Cause to raise up the national spiritual assemblies who first elected the Universal House of Justice.

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