Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Book Review

Riaz Khadem, Shoghi Effendi in Oxford and Earlier, George Ronald, Oxford, 1999

I just finished "Shoghi Effendi in Oxford and Earlier," an unassuming study of the early years of the Guardian by Riaz Khadem, son of the Hand of the Cause Dhikru’llah Khadem. Riaz Khadem, supported financially by his father, had the bounty in the 1960's of attending the same college, Balliol, that the Guardian had lived and studied in some forty years before. This placed him in a unique position to do the research that resulted in this book. For instance, he wrote the surviving members of Shoghi Effendi's classes, and a surprisingly large number responded, considering how brief was his time at Balliol.

One classmate replied who had known Shoghi Effendi in late 1921, at the end of his stay there, the time when he discovered Gibbon's Decline and Fall. He read it wherever he went, even going for walks about campus while reading,

"It was quite a thing to watch, and I always thought he would trip over something. However, dignity and a look of profound inspiration always seemed to be preserved." (Riaz Khadem, Shoghi Effendi in Oxford and Earlier, p. 129)

Of course we cannot be certain that it was Decline and Fall that the Guardian was holding. It may have been the KJV, which he also discovered around this time. "In addition to Gibbon's work, Shoghi Effendi loved the style of English in the King James version of the Bible, which he read while he was at Balliol." Some of the classmates had the impression that Shoghi Effendi had just discovered the Bible itself. Khadem points out that this was not the case, since he had already taken several courses on the Bible as an undergraduate. It was the English style of the King James translation that was a new discovery. Here is how Khadem describes the long term effects of his discovery of the Decline and Fall,

"During his studies at Oxford Shoghi Effendi became familiar with a book of extreme importance, which captured his interest and left an enduring mark on the style of English that emerged in his later writings. He saw the similarity of the historical events described in the book with the decline of the social and political institutions of his time. Furthermore, he found in this book the germ of a style of English that could serve as the vehicle for the exposition of the spiritual and intellectual verities of the Faith of Baha'u'llah. This book, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon's famous work, was Shoghi Effendi's constant companion." (128)

This is an interesting thesis, that the Guardian's world view was influenced by Gibbon's thesis of gradual decline, followed by fall. It is true that at the time in Oxford the idea of "decline and fall" was all the rage. Oswald Spengler had just come out with the first volume of his "Decline of the West" three years before. The tendency to look back on a golden past is common among conservatives, while liberals look forward to a bright future. Of course the teaching of Baha'u'llah is that old and new are rolling up and being rolled out at one and the same time. This is why the Baha'i Faith can be both liberal in principle and orthodox in doctrine at the same time, without self contradiction.

I had not realized that Shoghi Effendi was at this time, in 1921, already working on his translation of the Tablets to the Kings. These Tablets of Baha'u'llah written to Western leaders were not published separately until long after his death. In the Sixties the Guardian's incomplete excerpts were collected into "Proclamation to the Kings," which was handed out to prominent people on the centenary of the original Proclamation of Baha'u'llah. The full translation of these letters were finally completed only very recently by the Research Department at the World Center. They make up the core of Summons of the Lord of Hosts, which came out only a few years ago. In this book we read the following letter that Shoghi Effendi, graduate student, wrote to a friend,

"I have been of late immersed in my work, revising many translations and have sent to Mr Hall my version of Queen Victoria's Tablet which is replete with most vital and significant world counsels, so urgently needed by this sad and disillusioned world! If you have not perused it, be sure to obtain it from Mr. Hall as it is in my opinion one of the most outstanding and emphatic pronouncements of Baha'u'llah on world affairs ..." (128)

Also at this time he was doing the basic research which he later incorporated into the footnotes of Dawnbreakers and, of course, God Passes By, a couple of decades later. In a letter Shoghi Effendi wrote,

"I am enclosing for all of you extracts, some new and some old, in the course of my readings at the Bodleian [Library] on the [Baha'i] movement. I have also with me startling revelations on the Cause by the well-known orientalist Le Comte de Gobineau. I shall also later send you a paper on the movement which I read some time ago at one of the leading societies of Oxford." (Riaz Khadem, Shoghi Effendi in Oxford and Earlier, p. 128)

Khadem does not include this paper but hints that it formed the basis of the Guardian's later distillation of the nature of the Faith to the Palestine Commission, which later became the definitive Baha'i pamphlet. Let me close with this touching description of the sad state of mourning in which Shoghi Effendi left Oxford,

"According to Isobel Slade, Shoghi Effendi was in London on A December 1921. Miss Grand had invited Mrs Slade to her flat that evening. It was a solemn occasion. The friends bade farewell to Shoghi Effendi who was leaving for Haifa with Lady Blomfield to be present for the reading of 'Abdu'l-Baha's Will. Here are Isobel Slade's recollections of that evening:
"I was particularly impressed by this very young man, whom I saw for the first time. He seemed dazed and bewildered with sadness. It was late evening and the room was very heated but he wore an overcoat. He was asked if he would not like to remove it. He replied that when he set out for England his grandfather had told him always to wear it in winter." (Riaz Khadem, Shoghi Effendi in Oxford and Earlier, p. 135)

John Taylor

No comments: