'Prophet's Daughter' tells story of an exceptional woman

20 July 2005

A woman who was assigned principal responsibility for the administration of an independent world religion is the subject of a book recently launched at a major book fair in New York.

"Prophet's Daughter," by Dr. Janet Khan, tells the story of Bahiyyih Khanum (1846-1932), who held the reins of the Baha'i Faith at crucial formative stages in the history of the youngest of the world religions.

The book describing the life of the daughter of Baha'u'llah was presented at BookExpo America held in New York on 3-5 June 2005.

General manager of Baha'i Publishing Lee Minnerly said the book describes the accomplishments of Bahiyyih Khanum and her exceptional ability to transcend adversity.

"The book delivers a strong message of encouragement and hope to anyone concerned about humanity's ability to combat ignorance, prejudice, and repression," Mr. Minnerly said.

The author, a member of the Research Department at the Baha'i World Centre in Haifa, Israel, holds a doctorate in counseling. She coauthored with her husband, Dr. Peter Khan, the 1998 book "The Advancement of Women: A Baha'i Perspective."

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  • The resting place of Bahiyyih Khanum, Baha'i World Centre, Mount Carmel, Haifa, Israel.

  • Dr. Janet Khan with her recently published book "Prophet's Daughter."

"Prophet's Daughter" analyzes the significant role Bahiyyih Khanum played in the development of the religion's administrative structure and in its emergence as a worldwide faith.

"In the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when Middle Eastern women were largely invisible, confined to the home, deprived of education and social status, Bahiyyih Khanum was an active participant in the dramatic early years of the Baha'i Faith," Dr. Janet Khan said.

"The book illustrates how Bahiyyih Khanum transcended the cultural constraints of the time she lived in," she said.

From her earliest years Bahiyyih Khanum suffered with her family as the authorities in Persia confiscated their home and possessions, and exiled them from their homeland to eventually be imprisoned in Acre in the Holy Land.

"Bahiyyih Khanum's role in the early history of the Baha'i Faith was different at different points of time," Dr. Khan said.

"It is clear though that from her childhood she had an appreciation and understanding of the significance of her Father's station and the new religious revelation He brought," she said.

Baha'u'llah passed away in 1892 and appointed His eldest son, 'Abdu'l-Baha, as His successor as head of the Faith.

Between 1911 and 1913, during 'Abdu'l-Baha's travels to Europe and America, He entrusted His sister, then in her mid 60s, with the responsibilities of the day-to-day administration of the Faith.

In her brother's absence Bahiyyih Khanum welcomed dignitaries and officials, met with Baha'i pilgrims, and handled the affairs of 'Abdu'l-Baha's extended family. Like her brother, she gave assistance to the poor and provided medical services to the sick.

Another significant phase of her life came after the passing of 'Abdu'l-Baha, in 1921. In His Will and Testament, 'Abdu'l-Baha appointed His eldest grandson, Shoghi Effendi, as head of the Faith, with the title "Guardian."

Shocked by the sudden passing of his grandfather and conscious of the weighty task ahead of him, the 24-year-old Shoghi Effendi had to prepare himself for this unexpected responsibility.

For the next three years Shoghi Effendi spent extended periods of time in contemplation, prayer, and planning in Switzerland, during which he assigned the task of the supervision of the Baha'i community to Bahiyyih Khanum.

"This meant that for the first time in history a woman was appointed to direct the affairs of a world religion and that Shoghi Effendi had the confidence that Bahiyyih Khanum would succeed in this task," Dr. Khan said.

Her appointment to this position came during a critical period of transition for the Baha'i Faith and its community, Dr. Khan said. She possessed the necessary skills and qualities of character to carry out her assigned functions.

Bahiyyih Khanum had a vision of how the Faith should unfold, Dr. Khan said, because she understood the succession of the Faith's administrative order as preordained by Baha'u'llah.

"By corresponding with Baha'i communities worldwide she facilitated the transition process between the passing of 'Abdu'l-Baha, the Guardianship, and the election of spiritual assemblies, the governing councils of local Baha'i communities," she said.

"To me, Bahiyyih Khanum was not only highly refined spiritually, she was also a woman of great strength, resilience, and practicality. She was a prisoner from the age of six but always remained optimistic, and encouraging, a strong and complex woman, action oriented, and forward looking.

"The book intends to analyze aspects of Bahiyyih Khanum's legacy that have continuing relevance to men and women, not only in the present day but also in the future," said Dr. Khan.

The full title of the book is "Prophet's Daughter: The Life and Legacy of Bahiyyih Khanum, an Outstanding Heroine of the Baha'i Faith."

"Prophet's Daughter" can be ordered at general bookstores in the United States. For those living outside the United States, the book can be ordered through the United States Baha'i Distribution Service, at bds@usbnc.org.

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