Written by: Moojan Momen
Baha'u'llah made testamentary provisions for his eldest son, 'Abdu'l-Baha, to become the head of the Baha'i community and the sole authorized interpreter of the Baha'i scriptures. When 'Abdu'l-Baha took over the leadership of the Baha'i community after his father's death in 1892, it was confined geographically to the Middle East, Central Asia, and India and was largely Iranian in culture. A number of Jews and Zoroastrians had become Baha'is but most Baha'is were converts from Islam, although there were a number of second-generation Baha'is becoming prominent in the community. During the first decade of his leadership, 'Abdu'l-Baha defended his position against an attack on his leadership by his half-brother. Meanwhile fledgling Baha'i communities were established in North America and Europe. This development gained impetus from a stream of visitors from the West who began to arrive in 'Akka from 1899 onward, spending some time with 'Abdu'l-Baha and learning more about their religion.
The second decade of 'Abdu'l-Baha's leadership focused on his travels through Egypt, Europe, and North America, strengthening these Baha'i communities. In addition, the Baha'i community of Ashkhabad in Russian Turkmenistan became the most highly developed Baha'i community in the world with elected Baha'i institutions, schools, meetings halls, and the first Baha'i House of Worship (Mashriqu'l-Adhkar). The Iranian Baha'i community gained great influence in Iranian society by its advocacy of reform and its networks of more than eighty schools, which were available to girls as well as boys and open to all. Despite ongoing persecution from the Islamic religious leadership, the religion was spreading in Iran and in much of the Middle East.
'Abdu'l-Baha appointed his grandson, Shoghi Effendi, as the head of the Baha'i Faith and the authorized interpreter of its scriptures, with the title of the Guardian of the Baha'i Faith. On assuming this position in 1922, Shoghi Effendi immediately began the process of establishing the Baha'i administrative institutions that had been mandated in Baha'u'llah's writings and had come into existence in rudimentary form during the time of 'Abdu'l-Baha.
Effendi created new procedures for the election of leaders, based on Baha'i ideals of avoiding divisiveness—in this case the conflict inherent in party politics and electioneering. He defined their functions, the extent and limits of their authority and advised on their relationship with the Baha'i community. He instructed them on their procedures and in particular the consultative decision-making process that is distinctive to Baha'i communities. He described the role of the elected officers of these institutions and the qualities that the elected members should seek to acquire in order to perform their role.
When Shoghi Effendi assumed leadership of the Baha'i community, it had a social structure very similar to other traditional religious communities, with a class of assertive men leading passive congregations. As he built up the elected institutions of the community, he emphasized that these institutions, rather than individuals, were to be authoritative in the community. He encouraged the Baha'is to take issues and questions that they would previously have addressed to 'Abdu'l-Baha or one of the leading Baha'is to these elected institutions.