Review - "Prophet's Daughter" by Janet Khan
December 7, 2007
Bahíyyih Khánum, the Greatest Holy Leaf, daughter of Bahá'u'lláh, can be considered the woman of highest station in her father's faith, and yet the facts about her life are few. Owing primarily to cultural constraints on her sex, the story and character of her outstanding life must be teased out by the biographer through the scattered references of letters, diaries, and recollections. Armed with a mighty assortment of such citations, researcher Janet Khan weaves a moving tapestry of the Greatest Holy Leaf in Prophet's Daughter: The Life and Legacy of Bahíyyih Khánum, Outstanding Heroine of the Bahá'í Faith.
Bahíyyih Khánum's life was a hard one — she and her family were evicted from home and country in her early childhood (1852). Her father had become the de facto leader of a new religious movement after the death of its founder and the earliest of its champions. Exiled first from Tehran to Baghdad, thence to Constantinople, Adrianople, and finally Akka, her health was constantly imperiled, both physically and mentally. Through it all, her spirit soared where most of ours would wither.
Some ten years into their exile, while she was still a teenager, her father declared that he was the Promised One of God, and he quickly become more than a de facto leader. Demands on his person, family, and household were great. From an early age, Bahíyyih Khánum played an important role in helping her mother run that household, and finally took over after her mother's death. She continued in that role, for her father's whole family, until her own death nearly half a century later (1932).
Sadly, the crucial role of such domestic leadership is one all too easily ignored by the standard historians. Khan tells us, she also played the role of diplomat — not only welcoming and entertaining pilgrims and guests (at least the women among them), but also carrying on extensive and encouraging correspondence with Bahá'ís around the world. Many of the character traits the author draws out are based on excerpts from these letters, and from those of the subject's great-nephew, Shoghi Effendi, Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith.
As Khan links together the various known activities and attitudes of such a remarkable life, she allows herself room, by way of contextualization, to explain much about Bahá'u'lláh's life and teachings, to the great benefit of the reader. Indeed, as a biographer working with such limited material, Khan's greatest gift may be in her ability to hone in on the myriad ways in which the Greatest Holy Leaf upheld her father's teachings and strengthened the at-times-tenuous position of his appointed successors in leadership.
She does so through explanations of semi-obscure, but nonetheless important, topics in Bahá'í theology and history. These include the nature of personal rank and status; the distinctions between Bahá'í consultation and traditional decision-making and conflict resolution; the reticence of early 20th century Bahá'ís to embrace central organization (though this one more hinted at than explained); and the development of the Bahá'í World Center in Haifa, Palestine (now Israel).
To call Khan's writing utilitarian would be to overshoot, but her remarks are rarely florid. This restrained language provides a useful counterpoint to the elegance and complexity of expression employed by most of the writers she quotes. If there was one complaint to be made, it would be of the occasionally jarring manner in which a person or concept is re-introduced as if for the first time. One wonders of the writing process was episodic or if the book's chapters were originally separate projects of some sort.
Through this thoroughly readable book, Janet Khan provides a fresh and accessible approach to Bahá'í history and scholarship. Her insight into and explication of the Greatest Holy Leaf's life highlight the sustaining and even pivotal contributions of this servant to the Bahá'í cause, shaming the many male historians who give nary a mention. Both those new to the Bahá'í Faith and those well acquainted will find inspiration. This is a biography worthy of emulation.
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