by Jack McLean
Based on a biography written by Jalal and Doris Debassige Toeg, delivered by Jack McLean at the Gauthier Funeral Home, Vanier, Ontario (November 4, 2010)
Providence has called us here today to pay tribute to an extraordinary woman, one whose spiritual rank belongs to the highest orders. We are here today to celebrate Latifa’s life and mourn her passing and to offer prayers for the spiritual happiness of her radiant soul as she continues her eternal journey in her celestial home. As we remember such a spiritually rich life, we seek to discover what made Latifa such an extraordinary person, even though to outward seeming she appeared deceptively ordinary. She would have wanted us to remember, especially, that one great joy of her life, teaching the Bahá’í Faith, a world faith to which she felt so honoured to belong.
Her name is Latifa, the feminine form of the Arabic “latif”, a word that means “delicate” or “refined”. But not everyone knows that she had a title, a title that was given to her by no less a person than Shoghi Effendi Rabbani, the former head and Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith. In his 1935 pilgrimage, the second he made to the holy land, Shoghi Effendi said to her husband Daood: “Your wife is a Muquina” — a woman who has certitude. With his unerring insight, Shoghi Effendi had identified the essence of Latifa’s spirituality. She told me that she did not dare accompany her husband to Haifa because she did not want Shoghi Effendi to look into her face and “know everything that I was thinking.”
Her Remarkable Life
She was born on July 1,1918 into a Jewish family in Baghdad, Iraq. Latifa discovered the Bahá’í Faith while being courted by her fiancé and later husband, Daood (David) Toeg, a successful merchant in the city.
Latifa grew up dissatisfied with the Jewish faith mainly because of the mockery and animosity she heard expressed toward Muslims and Christians. Eventually she became quite disillusioned by the deep-seated prejudice and hatred that divided Jews, Christians and Muslims in her native city. Her sensitive heart was so distressed by this enmity that even from childhood she would pray fervently that God would remove the thick barriers that alienated the followers of the monotheistic religions one from the other. “Oh God!” Latifa would pray, “You are the Father of all. Why are your children fighting?” The moment that Latifa heard about the Bahá’í Faith from her husband, and the principles of the “unity of mankind,” “the abolition of prejudice,” and “the oneness of religion,” she found her heart’s desire and embraced the Faith that embodied her spiritual ideals.
She married Mr. Toeg in 1942. The marriage was blessed with the birth of three fine sons, Jamal, Kamal and Jalal. Latifa was not lax in giving her children a Bahá’í upbringing. She spent her best efforts in raising them to become devoted teachers of the Bahá’í Faith.
Depending upon the occasion, Latifa’s character could reveal quiet determination, strong will or courage. She became one of the first women in Iraq to obtain her driver’s licence, an action for which she was ridiculed and even spat on by a Muslim cleric who could not tolerate a liberated woman setting what he regarded as a bad example to other Iraqi women.
In the early days of her marriage, Daood informed Latifa that Bahá’u’lláh desired that the friends would chant Bahá’í prayers in the same musical modes that are used for the chanting of the Qu’rán. Latifa took this advice to heart. She arranged for a blind mullah, who was appointed to chant the Qu’rán in various mosques in Baghdad, to teach her. From this man, Latifa learned to chant professionally. The Muslim cleric visited Latifa at home, an action that raised eyebrows and questions in the Jewish neighbourhood, where Muslims, especially clerics, were decidedly not welcome. In the appropriate musical style, the mullah taught her to chant most of the chapters of the Qu’rán. So soon after becoming a Bahá’í, Latifa was already breaking down the barriers of religious prejudice.
On a family visit to Turkey, while she was expecting her third son, Jalal, the Toegs visited the famous Blue Mosque in Istanbul, built by Sultan Ahmet I in the early 17th century, so-called because of its gorgeous interior blue tiles. When those in charge of the mosque learned from Daood of her talent of chanting in Arabic, they pleaded with her to chant the Qur’án from the minaret. After some convincing — for this was an unusual request–she graciously accepted. Latifa’s chanting was enthusiastically received and some of the visitors to the mosque were moved to tears. How extraordinary, if not quasi-miraculous, was this chanting of the verses of the Qur’án from the minaret of the famous Blue Mosque by an unknown Bahá’í woman who was considered to be a heretic by orthodox Muslims.
During her lifetime, she was often requested to chant Arabic Bahá’í prayers at meetings large and small: firesides, conventions and conferences. Anyone who ever heard Latifa chant, especially when she was still in good health, can testify that her chanting brought the friends into the divine presence. A particularly memorable moment took place during the International Symposium on the Bahá’í Faith and Islam in March, 1984 at McGill University in Montreal, a symposium sponsored by the Canadian Association for Bahá’í Studies. To close the conference, her male counterpart, a Muslim, chanted the Qur’án, while Latifa followed by chanting the prayers of Bahá’u’lláh. It was an unforgettable experience for all those who were privileged to attend, one that I personally will never forget.
During the Ten Year Plan (1953-1963), launched by the beloved Guardian, Latifa encouraged the family to pioneer to Kirkuk, capital of the province of Kurdistan in North-Eastern Iraq where they spent seven years (1956-1963). With the passing years, and the change of circumstances, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Iraq felt that the Bahá’í community in Baghdad needed the support and encouragement of the Toegs; it requested the return of the family of five to the capital.
During her years of service to the Faith in Iraq, Latifa attended with her husband several international conferences in the 1950’s including those of New Delhi, India, Stockholm, Sweden, Kampala, Uganda and Wilmette, Illinois in 1958. During the same year, she traveled with her husband on a world, travel-teaching tour for an entire year. It was one of the highlights of their married life as Bahá’í travel-teachers.
In Iraq, Latifa served for many years at the local and national levels, on both assemblies and committees. She was the first woman to serve on the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Iraq during a time when it was unusual for women from the Middle-East to occupy administrative posts. She served for many years on that same institution, acting for some years as its treasurer.
When in those days some Western believers had the opportunity to visit Iraq, and desired to visit the sacred house of Bahá’u’lláh in Baghdad, Latifa used to make the arrangements for the western women to wear the abbah to circumambulate the house of Baha’u’llah at night.
For many years the Toegs felt the desire to leave Iraq and settle abroad, but when they requested permission from the Guardian of the Faith, Shoghi Effendi’s reply was “your presence in Iraq is more essential and very much needed”.
But in 1970, the repressive measures of the Iraqi government compelled the Toegs to leave their native land. After a stay of several months in Tehran, they settled in Canada early in 1971. At the request of the National Spiritual Assembly, the family pioneered to Hull, Quebec where they helped to reestablish the Local Spiritual Assembly which had fallen under strength.
Latifa served on the Local Assembly of Hull for many years. The Toeg home at 92 boulevard Riel became well-known throughout the Ottawa Valley for its dynamic weekly Friday night firesides. Together, Latifa, Daood and their sons made a wonderful teaching team. They looked forward to the Friday night meeting with expectation, and all of us who attended looked forward to going. Daood prepared his talks carefully if he were the speaker. About a dozen French Canadian believers became Bahá’ís during those firesides. Most have remained active, not the least of whom was their next-door neighbor, Francine Sauvé, who became Kamal’s wife.
Her beloved Daood passed away in Hull on February 1, 1974 after spending only three years of his life in Canada. But he had the honour of being buried at his pioneering post. His was also the distinction of being the first Bahá’í to be buried in Hull and his burial stone is engraved with a eulogy from the Universal House of Justice.
After her husband passed away, Latifa lived for two years in Hull with her son Jalal and his wife Doris until they left for their pioneering post in Inuvik, North West Territories. From 1976, until the decline of her health required that she live in a care facility, Latifa lived with son Kamal, daughter-in-law, Francine, and their two sons, Hadi and Salim, and later with Jalal and Doris. The passing of her beloved son, Kamal, in January 2006 was a great blow, but Latifa acquiesced to the will of God, accepting this great test with magnanimity.
Throughout her long life of 92 years, Latifa served as a homefront pioneer to some surrounding communities in Ontario to help establish functioning Local Spiritual Assemblies. The communities of Kanata, Rockland and Russell all benefited from her serene, steadfast presence and her firm determination to fulfill the teaching goals. For a one year period, she went north to Inuvik, North West Territories, as a short-term pioneer, where she also served as assistant to the late Auxiliary Board Member, Mr. Ron Parsons. In 1986 she attended the inauguration of the Bahá’í House of Worship (the Lotus Temple) in New Delhi, India.
Latifa was 56 years old when Daood died in 1974. During the 36 years that her husband was not at her side, and for as long as her health permitted, she offered her services to the National Teaching Committee who requested that Latifa travel teach in various communities throughout Canada. That body wrote that they considered Latifa to be one of their star travel teachers. In a letter of October 31, 1978 the National Teaching Committee called her “a precious resource” and assured the correspondents that “we know you will love having her with you.” The letter contained some delightful references to Latifa’s personal teaching style: “At firesides, deepenings, or children’s classes she likes to tell stories of the history of the Faith and about Bahá’í family life, as well as encouraging the friends to teach. Her chanting of the prayers in Arabic stirs the depths of your being with its feeling and melody. She also sings in Arabic and brews delicious Turkish coffee!” The National Teaching Committee asked that Latifa be given every consideration.
Against her cardiologist’s advice, she also traveled to at least fifteen small, isolated communities in Nunavut, Northwest Territories and the Yukon. While in Inuvik, she taught the faith to a young Inuvialuit woman who declared her faith in Bahá’u’lláh. She was expecting a child at the time, and when her daughter was born, she named her baby Latifa, in honour of her spiritual mother. A considerable number of seekers who crossed her path during these travel-teaching trips became Bahá’ís because they were fortunate enough to have felt the penetrating influence of this star teacher, who worked the magic of her quiet determination, rock-solid faith and absolute certitude in the efficacy of the Faith’s teachings. At all times, Latifa realized that any declarations of faith that were garnered in her presence were not the result of the influence of her human personality, but derived, rather, from the workings of the Spirit bestowed by Bahá’u’lláh. This was her strength.
Latifa was very much loved by the Canadian Bahá’í friends for the stories she told about the early believers in Iraq and the Middle East. She loved to speak about the Central Figures of the Faith and especially about the Hands of the Cause of God. A good number of the Hands enjoyed the hospitality of her home in Baghdad and in Kirkuk where they were frequent visitors as they passed through Iraq engaged in the teaching work.
For many years her husband Daood rendered valuable services to the Guardian in channeling communications between the Holy Land and the Iranian Bahá’í community at a time when there was no direct means of communication. In appreciation of this vital service, the Guardian sent approximately fifty letters of praise, thanks and encouragement, assuring Daood of his constant prayers and blessings. In one of the Guardian’s letters, he asked Daood to give his greetings to his three sons, “Jamal Effendi, Kamal Effendi and Jalal Effendi” and to Latifa, addressing her as “the Muqina (lady of certitude), your respected wife”.
Her Spirituality: Teaching, Friendship and Hospitality
Friends, I would not want to leave this tribute without pausing for another moment to mention something more about Latifa’s one great joy in life — along with her beloved Daood and her family — teaching the Bahá’í Faith, an activity that was closely linked to friendship and hospitality. To her last breath, it was the sole purpose and mainstay of her life. In the report of her teaching trip to Arizona, during which two middle-aged women, Paulette and Kathleen became Bahá’ís, when asked to give a talk on art of teaching, she said in her reply that there was no art involved.
Her method was simple and direct. She would pray for guidance and inspiration, go to the local café and watch for a receptive, luminous face to come through the door. Then, she would somehow manage, even on a pretext, to engage that person in a friendly conversation, and tell them about the Faith, give them a card that listed the Bahá’í principles, invite them to a meeting and leave a phone number. She was almost always successful. Let me quote her own words:
“There is only what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá teaches us,” she wrote, “to have a pure motive in our hearts. Secondly, He said ‘Look at my face in that person’s face when you teach. He also said that if we have any personal motive in mind when teaching, we will get no result, even if we make all our efforts. Thirdly, the Beloved Guardian said to my husband that in previous manifestation it was forbidden to people to challenge their Lord, but in this manifestation, let them try!” She put these words into practice by her courage and audacity.
In her travel trips to the remotest and coldest regions of the Arctic, she continued the same hospitality for which she was known in Hull: making Iraqi dinners and serving Turkish coffee. Let me quote from a letter from the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Inuvik:
“The friends in both communities (Norman Wells and Holman Island) had eagerly anticipated Latifa’s visit, yet when she arrived, they confided to her that they found teaching very difficult. The residents of the settlement were not receptive to the message of the Faith. Undaunted, Latifa shared with them the deepening and teaching materials she had brought, and prayers for assistance in the teaching work. She encouraged them to invite their friends to meet with her, and when they came, she prepared Turkish coffee and Iraqi dishes for them. She inspired the friends in Normal Wells to adopt a new and bolder attitude toward teaching. In Holman Island, Latifa taught the Faith to a young man who became so enthralled with the Teachings of Bahá’u’lláh that he declared himself a Bahá’í the night before Latifa’s departure — to the joy and astonishment of the other friends.”
Friends, we could multiply this story many-fold, such was the penetrating influence that Latifa found in spirit of the Bahá’í Faith, which is the spirit of Bahá’u’lláh. She made it seem easy because for her it was easy because she knew that she had been confirmed in the spirit of the Faith.
The South Saskatchewan Regional Teaching Committee said in its report of October 23, 1989:
“There is something special about her that we are not daily accustomed to. She gained our respect and captivated our hearing ear. Her spirit of Faith was radiant, clear, constant, loving and understanding. This condition soon established the respect from all those she met which led to affecting “questioning” curious souls…. Latifa’s ability to make everyone, Bahá’í or non-Bahá’í whom she meets, to feel like in her they have found a true and close friend is unique.”
Friends, here is another remarkable story that happened during Latifa’s travel-teaching trip to Sudbury. Latifa wrote about a couple that was engaged to be married, Pam, a new Bahá’í, and her fiancé Bill. She writes:
“I invited them for an Iraqi supper. Bill is very quiet and does not socialize very much. When they came he did not join in the conversation. He just listened and people did not understand him. I didn’t know what to say to him. I asked Bahá’u’lláh what I should say. All of a sudden I remembered an experience I had when I was pioneering in Inuvik. It was a long story. The man had had a spiritual experience and he declared after I had seen him four times. After I told this story, Bill started to talk and became very open. I think he was afraid to tell people what had happened to him and that’s why people thought he was very shy. He started to tell us about his spiritual experience. Twice in his life he almost died, but he knew that God saved him for a reason. After he told us about his stories, he was very open. I gave him a card and told him he may need it one day. That night he dreamed he saw Bahá’u’lláh. When he woke up he went to his fiancée to sign the card I gave him. That night was the birthday of Bahá’u’lláh. Bill came and sat near me. He told me he felt as if someone had opened his eyes wide. His face was glowing and he couldn’t close his mouth from smiling and telling me about his happy feeling. Pam is very happy now that they will be a Bahá’í couple.”
Friends, I would like to close this long eulogy today with a very intimate moment, one that Latifa asked me to share with you at this time. It comes in the form of a remarkable dream that Latifa had of Bahá’u’lláh not long after her marriage to Daood. When Latifa became a Bahá’í, she was abandoned by most of her family. Only her mother and her sister came to the wedding reception. When she complained of this to Daood, he only smiled and said that this privation was a bounty from God. That night Latifa had a dream that she was standing alone, when suddenly she found herself quite naked. She felt embarrassed, fearful and vulnerable. Then she heard a voice, the voice of Bahá’u’lláh that said: “I have clothed her with the robe of the heavens and the earth.”