After the death of `Abdu'l-Bahá in 1921, the leadership of the Bahá'í community entered a new phase, evolving from that of a single individual to an administrative order with executive and legislative branches, the head of each being the Guardianship and the Universal House of Justice. Shoghi Effendi was referred to as the Guardian, and held the explicit authority to interpret the writings of the three central figures of the religion and define the sphere of legislative authority. His writings are effectively limited to commentaries on the works of the Central Figures, and broad directives for the future.
Future hereditary Guardians were permitted in the Bahá'í scripture by appointment from one to the next, but a prerequisite that appointees be male descendants of Bahá'u'lláh left no living candidates that had not been excommunicated as covenant-breakers, and Shoghi Effendi died without making an appointment. The Universal House of Justice, the only institution authorized to adjudicate on situations not covered in scripture, later announced that it could not legislate to make possible the appointment of a successor to Shoghi Effendi. To Bahá'ís he is the first and last Guardian.
Born in `Akká in March 1897, Shoghi Effendi was related to The Báb through his father, Mírzá Hádí Shírází, and to Bahá'u'lláh through his mother, Díyá'íyyih Khánum, the eldest daughter of `Abdu'l-Bahá. From the early years of his life, Shoghi Effendi was greatly influenced by `Abdu'l-Bahá, who provided much of his initial training. Shoghi Effendi learned prayers from his grandfather `Abdu'l-Bahá, who encouraged him to chant. It was also `Abdu'l-Bahá who insisted that the appellation given to the child should be "Shoghi Effendi", ("Effendi" signifies "Sir"), rather than simply "Shoghi", as a mark of respect towards him.
From his early years, Shoghi Effendi was introduced to the suffering which accompanied the Bahá'ís in Akká, including the attacks by Mírzá Muhammad `Alí against `Abdu'l-Bahá. As a young boy, he was aware of Sultán `Abdu'l-Hamíd's desire to banish `Abdu'l-Bahá to the deserts of North Africa where he was expected to perish. At one point, Shoghi Effendi was warned not to drink coffee in the homes of any of the Bahá'ís in the fear that he would be poisoned.
Being the eldest grandson of `Abdu'l-Bahá, from his earliest childhood he had a special relationship with his grandfather. Dr. Baghdadi reports that when Shoghi Effendi was only 5 years old, he was pestering his grandfather to write a tablet for him, which was common for `Abdu'l-Bahá. He wrote the following for his grandson:
He is God! O My Shoghi, I have no time to talk, leave me alone! You said 'write' - I have written. What else should be done? Now is not the time for you to read and write, it is the time for jumping about and chanting 'O My God!', therefore memorize the prayers of the Blessed Beauty and chant them that I may hear them, because there is no time for anything else.
Shoghi Effendi then set out to memorize a number of prayers, and chanted them as loud as he could. This caused family members to ask `Abdu'l-Bahá to quiet him down, a request which he apparently refused.
He first attended a French Christian Brothers school in Haifa, then boarding at another Catholic school in Beirut, Shoghi Effendi later attended the Syrian Protestant College (later known as the American University of Beirut) for his final years of high school and first years of university. He reports being very unhappy in school and often returned on vacations to Haifa spent with `Abdu'l-Bahá.
During his studies, he dedicated himself to mastering English - adding this language to the Persian, Turkish, Arabic and French, languages in which he was already fluent - so that he could translate the letters of `Abdu'l-Bahá and serve as His secretary.
After studying at the American University of Beirut he later went to Balliol College, Oxford in England, where he matriculated in "Economics and Social Sciences", while still perfecting his translation skills.
The issue of successorship to `Abdu'l Bahá was in the minds of early Bahá'ís, and although the Universal House of Justice was an institution mentioned by Bahá'u'lláh, the institution of the Guardianship was not introduced until the Will and Testament of `Abdu'l-Bahá was publicly read after his death. Bahá'u'lláh's own will mentions Mírzá Muhammad `Alí as following `Abdu'l Bahá in leadership, but he was excommunicated as a covenant-breaker and shunned by Bahá'ís.
On the occasion of some Persian believers asking him about a successor, `Abdu'l Bahá responded:
...Know verily that this is a well-guarded secret. It is even as a gem concealed within its shell. That it will be revealed is predestined. The time will come when its light will appear, when its evidences will be made manifest, and its secrets unravelled.
On another occasion, Western believers, hearing of the birth of Shoghi Effendi, wrote to `Abdu'l Bahá and asked if this child is the one mentioned in the Bible in Isaiah 11:6 where it says "a little child shall lead them". The response was:
Verily, that child is born and is alive and from him will appear wondrous things that thou wilt hear of in the future. Thou shalt behold him endowed with the most perfect appearance, supreme capacity, absolute perfection, consummate power and unsurpassed might... ages and centuries will bear traces of him.
...The Guardian of the Cause of God, as well as the Universal House of Justice to be universally elected and established, are both under the care and protection of the Abha Beauty... Whatsoever they decide is of God. Whoso obeyeth him not, neither obeyeth them, hath not obeyed God; whoso rebelleth against him and against them hath rebelled against God; whoso opposeth him hath opposed God; whoso contendeth with them hath contended with God; whoso disputeth with him hath disputed with God; whoso denieth him hath denied God; whoso disbelieveth in him hath disbelieved in God; whoso deviateth, separateth himself and turneth aside from him hath in truth deviated, separated himself and turned aside from God.
In the Will Shoghi Effendi found that he had been designated as "the Sign of God, the chosen branch, the Guardian of the Cause of God". He also learned that he had been designated as this when he was still a small child.
Shoghi Effendi later expressed to his wife and others that he had no foreknowledge of the existence of the Institution of Guardianship, least of all that he was appointed as Guardian. The most he expected was perhaps, because he was the eldest grandson, `Abdu'l-Bahá might have left instructions as to how the Universal House of Justice was to be elected and he might have been designated as Convener of the gathering which would elect it.
During his ministry the Bahá'í Religion developed into a global faith. From the time of appointment until his death, the Bahá'í Faith grew from 100,000 to 400,000 members, and countries of representation went from 35 to 250.
For thirty-six years Shoghi Effendi developed the worldwide Bahá'í community and its administrative structure. Because the Bahá'í community was relatively small and undeveloped when he assumed the leadership of the Faith, he strengthened and developed it over many years to the point where it was capable of supporting the administrative structure envisioned by `Abdu'l-Bahá. Under Shoghi Effendi's direction, National Spiritual Assemblies were formed, and many thousands of Local Spiritual Assemblies sprang up as the Bahá'í Faith spread around the globe.
He also appointed 32 living Hands of the Cause, oversaw the completion of the superstructure of the Shrine of the Báb, appointed the International Bahá'í Council in 1951, launched the Ten Year Crusade in 1953, and acted as the official representative of the Faith to legal authorities in Palestine/Israel throughout many attempts by Covenant-breakers to take authority from him.
In a more "secular" cause, prior to World War II he supported the work of restoration-forester Richard St. Barbe Baker to reforest Palestine, introducing St. Barbe Baker to religious leaders from the major faiths of the region, from whom backing was secured for such an effort.
In his lifetime, Shoghi Effendi translated in English many of the writings of the Báb, Bahá'u'lláh and `Abdu'l-Bahá, as well as such historical texts as The Dawn-breakers. His significance is not just that of a translator, but he was also the designated and authoritative interpreter of the Bahá'í writings. His translations therefore are a guideline for all future translations of the Bahá'í writings.
The only actual book he ever wrote was God Passes By in 1944 to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the religion. He also carried on a voluminous correspondence with believers from all parts of the globe. The total estimated number of letters that Shoghi Effendi wrote are over 30,000. His letters to individuals and assemblies have been compiled into several books which stand out as significant sources of literature for Bahá'ís around the world.
He always signed his letters with simply "Shoghi". In 1922, soon after becoming Guardian, he requested that he be regarded as a "true brother", to be referred in letters and verbal addresses always as Shoghi Effendi, as opposed to any other appellation.
If the friends only knew how the Master and the Guardian both suffered through the calibre of the local Bahá'ís. Some of them were good. But some were rotten. It's as if, when someone was unsound in the Covenant, they attacked the very body of the Manifestation, or the Exemplar, or the Guardian. I have seen this. It is like poison. He recovers from it, but it causes him untold suffering and it was from such things that the Master described Himself in His Will as 'this broken-winged bird.'
They [`Abdu'l-Baha's family] have gone a long way to crushing every ounce of spirit out of the Guardian. By nature he is cheerful and energetic... But the perpetual strife of life with the Master's family... have clouded over him... Shoghi Effendi has been abused. That is the only word for it, abused, abused, abused. By now he has reached the point of a man fighting with his back to the wall. He says he will fight it out to the last round.
At the time of his death, there were no descendants of Bahá'u'lláh that remained loyal to him, including his parents.
Shoghi Effendi's death came unexpectedly in London, on 4 November 1957, as he was traveling to Britain and caught the Asiatic flu. The news flashed around the world in the following cable:
Shoghi Effendi beloved of all hearts sacred trust given believers by Master passed away sudden heart attack in sleep following Asiatic flu. Urge believers remain steadfast cling institution Hands lovingly reared recently reinforced emphasized by beloved Guardian. Only oneness heart oneness purpose can befittingly testify loyalty all National Assemblies believers departed Guardian who sacrificed self utterly for service Faith. Ruhiyyih
According to the framework of the Will and Testament of `Abdu'l-Bahá, it was not possible to appoint a successor, and the legislative body "possessing the exclusive right to legislate on matters not explicitly revealed" was not yet established in the world. Furthermore, The Guardian left no will as attested to by the Hands of the Cause, who were required to ratify his selection. All of the 27 living Hands of the Cause unanimously signed a statement shortly after the death of Shoghi Effendi stating that he had died "without having appointed his successor..." (see full text).
In Shoghi Effendi's final message to the Baha'i World, dated October 1957, he named the Hands of the Cause of God, "the Chief Stewards of Bahá'u'lláh's embryonic World Commonwealth." (Shoghi Effendi, Messages to the Baha'i World - 1950-1957, p. 127) Consequently, following Shoghi Effendi's passing, the Bahá'í Faith was temporarily stewarded by the Hands of the Cause, who elected among themselves 9 "Custodians" to serve in Haifa as the head of the Faith. They reserved to the "entire body of the Hands of the Cause" the responsibility to determine the transition of the International Bahá'í Council into the Universal House of Justice, and that the Custodians reserved to themselves the authority to determine and expel Covenant-breakers.
This stewardship oversaw the execution of the final years of Shoghi Effendi's ordinances of the ten year crusade (which lasted until 1963) culminating and transitioning to the election and establishment of the Universal House of Justice, at the first Baha'i World Congress in 1963.
At the end of the Ten Year Crusade, planned by Shoghi Effendi and concluding in 1963, the Universal House of Justice was first elected. As its first order of business, the Universal House of Justice evaluated the situation caused by the fact that the Guardian had not appointed a successor. It determined that under the circumstances, given the criteria for succession described in the Will and Testament of `Abdu'l-Bahá, there was no legitimate way for another Guardian to be appointed.
Therefore, although the Will and Testament of `Abdu'l-Bahá leaves provisions for a succession of Guardians, Shoghi Effendi remains the first and last occupant of this office. This is only disputed by relatively small groups of Bahá'ís who claim that the Guardianship continues. See Bahá'í divisions.