Hermes Trismegistus and Apollonius of Tyana in the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh
by Keven Brownpublished in Revisioning the Sacred: New Perspectives on a Bahá’í Theology, Studies in the Babi and Baha'i Religions, vol. 8, pages 153-187, out of 231 total pages
Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1997
The name Hermes Trismegistus is commonly associated with occult sciences, such as theurgy, alchemy, and astrology, which partly originated in the technical Hermetic literature circulating in the Roman empire from as early as the second century B.C.E. Our modern expression “hermetically sealed” derives from the name Hermes. Apollonius of Tyana, the Pythagorian philosopher of the first century C.E., is less well known. Greek and Latin sources do not connect these two figures doctrinally, but in the Arabic Hermetic literature, some of which was translated from pagan Syrian sources in the time of Caliph Ma'mún (813 - 833), Apollonius (in Arabic Balínús) is often associated with Hermes. There he is depicted as the discoverer and representative of Hermes' teachings on the secrets of creation that had been lost to the generations before him. It is this later picture of Hermes and Apollonius that is most relevant to this study, for it is the tradition that is adopted by Bahá'u'lláh in his writings. In his Lawh-i-Hikmat (Tablet of Wisdom), for example, Bahá'u'lláh states: “It was this man of wisdom [Balínús] who became informed of the mysteries of creation and discerned the subtleties which lie enshrined in the Hermetic writings.”
According to the Eastern, Islamic tradition of Hermes Trismegistus, Hermes was a divine philosopher or Prophet who lived before the time of the Greek philosophers, and he was the first person to whom God instructed the secrets of wisdom and divine and natural sciences. Muslims equate Hermes to the Prophet Idrís, whom the Jews know as Enoch. In the Qur'án, it is written: “Commemorate Idrís in the Book; for he was a man of truth, a Prophet; and we uplifted him to a place on high” (Q. 19:57-58). Hermes is also called the "father of the philosophers" in the Muslim Hermetic tradition, because he was believed to be the most ancient of those who propagated wisdom and sciences. In accord with this tradition, Bahá'u'lláh writes in his Lawh Basít al-Haqíqat (Tablet on the Uncompounded Reality):
The first person who devoted himself to philosophy was Idrís. Thus was he named. Some called him also Hermes. In every tongue he hath a special name. He it is who hath set forth in every branch of philosophy thorough and convincing statements. After him Balínús derived his knowledge and sciences from the Hermetic Tablets and most of the philosophers who followed him made their philosophical and scientific discoveries from his words and statements.
In this quotation, “after him” represents a long period of time, since Balínús lived in the first century C.E. The “philosophers who followed him” would, accordingly, refer to philosophers after the first century C.E. who followed the Hermetic tradition.
Inasmuch as Bahá'u'lláh refers to Hermes and Apollonius in his writings, (1) what relevance does the Hermetic legacy in Islam have to Bahá'í thought in general, and (2) what attitude should Bahá'ís take toward these references in view of the declared infallibility of Bahá'í scripture? The first question is important as part of an investigation of the sources of Bahá'u'lláh's cosmological teachings; the second question is significant insofar as it concerns the issue of scriptural interpretation for Bahá'í theology. Before answering these questions, however, it is first necessary, in order to obtain a more balanced picture, to see how Hermes and Apollonius were viewed in the Roman empire before the conquest of Islam, and then to see how they were incorporated into the Islamic worldview. Furthermore, what of their writings were known, and how did they influence religious and philosophical thought?
Since, from the fragmentary textual evidence remaining from the Roman empire, the names of Hermes and Apollonius are not associated with each other at that time, they will be examined separately. The legendary name of Hermes Trismegistus in the Roman empire is, firstly, connected to the Egyptian god Thoth, whom Herodotus associated with the Greek Hermes in the fifth century B.C.E. In Egypt, in the most ancient period, Thoth was a powerful national god associated with the moon. As the moon is illuminated by the sun, likewise Thoth derived his authority from the sun god Re, to whom he acted as secretary and advisor. The moon ruled the stars and distinguished the seasons and months of the year, thus becoming the lord of time and the regulator of individual destinies. Thoth came to be viewed both as the source of cosmic order and of religious and civic institutions, and, as such, he presided over temple cults and laws of state. According to one account, "Tiberius enacted his laws for the World in the same way as Thoth, the creator of justice."
As the lord of wisdom, a role in which he was widely recognized, he was regarded as the origin of sacred texts and formulae, and of arts and sciences. The tradition that Thoth had revealed the arts of writing, number, geometry, and astronomy to King Ammon at Thebes was known to Plato and related by him in the Phaedrus. As the scribe of the gods, he was the inventor of writing. Plutarch explains that the first letter of the Egyptian alphabet is the ibis, the sacred bird symbol of Hermes, because Hermes invented writing.
Thoth was also a physician. In a representation of him from the time of Tiberius, he appears holding the stick of Asclepius with the snake. When a person died, he guided the soul to the afterlife, where he recorded the judgments of Osiris. Because the Greek Hermes, like Thoth, was associated with the moon, medicine, and the realm of the dead, and both served as a messenger for the gods and were known for inventiveness, the Greeks assimilated Hermes to Thoth. It is the Egyptian Thoth, however, who comes down to us as Hermes Trismegistus. Walter Scott believes that to distinguish this Hermes from the Greek Hermes, the Greeks added the epithet Trismegistus, meaning "thrice-great," which they borrowed from the Egyptian epithet for Thoth, aá aá, meaning "very great."
But another view of Hermes also prevailed in the Roman empire, probably due to the appearance of the Hermetic writings between the late first and late third centuries C.E. In this view, Hermes is not a god but as a divinely-guided man or Prophet. Long before, Plato had already questioned whether Thoth was a god or just a divine man. In the writings ascribed to Hermes, he is usually pictured as the mortal agent of a holy revelation from God which offers salvation to the soul from the bondage of matter and promises to disclose the secrets of creation. Ammianus Marcellinus, the fourth-century pagan historian, refers to Hermes Trismegistus, Apollonius of Tyana, and Plotinus as individuals with a special guardian spirit. To both Christians and pagans of the Roman empire, the Egyptian Hermes was a real person of great antiquity. Some considered him to be a contemporary of Moses, and they regarded him as the first and greatest teacher of gnosis and sophia, from whose teachings later philosophers derived the fundamentals of their philosophy. For example, Iamblichus (d. ca. 330 C.E.), one of the Neoplatonic successors of Plotinus, wrote that Plato and Pythagoras had visited Egypt and there read the tablets of Hermes with the assistance of native priests.
Bahá'u'lláh does not explicitly support a direct philosophical connection between Hermes and the early Greek philosophers, as Iamblichus does, but only between Hermes and Balínús and the philosophers who followed after Balínús in the Hermetic tradition. This is significant because part of the Islamic Hermetic tradition from which Bahá'u'lláh draws, as will be seen below, places Balínús prior in time to Aristotle, which is impossible in the light of historical evidence. Bahá'u'lláh, therefore, may be deliberately recounting those parts of the tradition he believes to be true while remaining silent about those parts that he believes to be false. In regard to a possible Egyptian influence on the early Greek philosophers, Jonathan Barnes writes: “Although some [Egyptian] fertilization can scarcely be denied, the proven parallels are surprisingly few and surprisingly imprecise.”
Lactantius, one of the early fathers of the Christian Church, believed Hermes to be the Gentile Prophet, who not only predicted the coming of Christ but recognized the Logos as God's son. He writes in his Institutes:
And even though he [Hermes] was a man, he was most ancient and well instructed in every kind of learning--to such a degree that his knowledge of the arts and of all other things gave him the cognomen or epithet Trismegistus. He wrote books--many, indeed, pertaining to the knowledge of divine things--in which he vouches for the majesty of the supreme and single God and he calls Him by the same names which we use: Lord and Father. Lest anyone should seek His name, he says that He is “without a name,” since He does not need the proper signification of a name because of His very unity.
Augustine, likewise, allows that "Hermes makes many...statements agreeable to the truth concerning the one true God Who fashioned this world," but he also castigates Hermes for what appears to be his sympathy for the gods of Egypt.
The Hermetic Writings
The Hermetica are those writings which in antiquity were ascribed to the figure of Hermes Trismegistus. Apart from this, there exists a body of Hermetic literature in Arabic that appears distinct from the Hermetica of the Roman empire, and which will be considered separately. These writings are presented as revelations of divine truth, not as the products of human reason, which in itself distinguishes them from the Greek philosophical tradition. The Hermetica may be divided, for the sake of convenience, into two general categories: those which deal with philosophical and theological matters and those which are of a technical nature, i.e., texts on alchemy, astrology, and theurgy. Walter Scott, who translated the Hermetica into English and published it together with commentary and testimonia, put all of his attention on the philosophical writings. Other scholars of the Hermetica, including André-Jean Festugière and Garth Fowden, treat the philosophical and technical texts as manifestations of a single worldview.
The philosophical texts which have survived to the present consist of collections of discourses in dialogue form, usually between Hermes and one or more of his disciples. They include the Corpus Hermeticum (C.H.), a collection of eighteen discourses including the well-known Poimandres as C.H. I. The last three discourses in this collection were commonly dropped out by Christians, probably because they contained material more noticeably pagan. Another collection, the Anthologium, was made by Stobaeus in the fifth century. It included extracts from C.H. II, IV, and X, and from otherwise unattested Hermetica. Neither of these collections included the well-known Asclepius, or Perfect Discourse, which contains Hermes' famous prophecy on Egypt. The Perfect Discourse has survived only in Latin, save for Greek fragments in Lactantius, likely because the work contains several passages of a clearly pagan nature, which were proscribed by Byzantine censorship. Other specimens of philosophical Hermetica are known to exist in Coptic and Armenian translations.
The general consensus of modern scholars, beginning with Isaac Casaubon in 1614, puts the composition of the philosophical texts between the late first to the late third centuries C.E. The composition of the technical texts may have begun as much as two centuries earlier. These calculations are based on external testimonia and analysis of the linguistic style and the doctrinal content of the texts. Tertullian of Carthage is the earliest known writer to clearly quote from the philosophical Hermetica in his Adversus Valentinianos and the De anima, both composed around 206 - 207. There are earlier references to Hermetic texts. Galen of Pergamon mentions a treatise on medical botany by Hermes Trimegistus that was supposedly well-known in the first century.
The modern dating of the texts refutes the possibility that they themselves are an ancient fount of divine wisdom pre-dating Plato. Nevertheless, it is possible that the Hermetica represent an authentic Egyptian religious tradition that came under the influence of Greek philosophy and was later written down in a highly Hellenized style. This idea was proposed in antiquity in a book called Abammonis Ad Porphyrium Responsum, written by Iamblichus, although ostensibly written by Abammon, an Egyptian priest of high rank, in reply to questions addressed by Porphyry (c. 232 - 301). Porphyry asked about the theology and religious practices of the Egyptians, especially about theurgy, implying that he found it difficult to reconcile them with his own beliefs. “Abammon” says that he will base his answers on two sources: (1) the "books of Thoth," written in ancient times by Egyptian priests, and (2) books written by recent writers who have condensed or summarized the contents of the ancient writings. Under the second category the author includes the Greek Hermetica, which Porphyry said he had read. Abammon explains that these texts were based on Egyptian documents which were translated, paraphrased, or interpreted by priests who were experts in Greek philosophy. According to this scheme, the works of Balínús known in the Islamic tradition would also fall under the second category, since he was regarded as the discoverer and propounder of the Hermetic writings.
Scott was of the opinion that if the above hypothesis was true, then the Egyptian priests of the Roman period could only have imagined that they had found in their ancient writings doctrines that were in accord with Platonic philosophy. But there have been some modern scholars more sympathetic to the view of Abammon. For example, in 1904 Richard Reitzenstein published his Poimandres wherein he challenges Isaac Casaubon's opinion that the Hermetica were merely Christian forgeries. William C. Grese sums up Reitzenstein's position in that work: "Reitzenstein portrayed the Hermetica as a Hellenistic development of ancient Egyptian religion." With the publication of the Nag Hammadi library of Coptic gnostic and Hermetic texts in the 1970s, Garth Fowden states that Hermetic scholarship has entered a new phase, one which emphasizes a closer connection of the Hermetica to traditional Egyptian thought.
It is true that the Roman empire in the first few centuries after Christ was known for the syncretistic drive of its component cultures. Greeks and Romans were borrowing from the Egyptians, the Jews, and the Persians, while these cultures in turn borrowed from the Greeks and the Romans, and from each other. The intermingling of races as well as religious and philosophical ideas made such borrowing not only possible but necessary, and contributed to a widespread feeling of toleration.
In common with revived Platonism and Pythagoreanism, and with the monotheistic religions of the time, Hermeticism taught that all beings derive from one supreme God, who is the object of each soul's adoration. Although some of the Hermetic texts may lend themselves to a pantheistic interpretation, God is also depicted as a personal creator, who is separate and independent from the world He creates. Fowden concurs: "Some conception of the transcendence of God (as for example the creator of the All rather than Himself the All) can often be found even in the most immanentist of treatises." One's view of God depends upon the level of understanding obtained while journeying through the stages of the "way of Hermes." Hermes says: "By stages he [the seeker] advances and enters the way of immortality."
The first step of the soul seeking reunion with God is to recognize its own ignorance, for only then can it obtain the knowledge of God. It is God's wish to be known by humanity, God's most glorious creation. Knowing God requires the second birth of the spirit, the unveiling of the "essential" human within, which means that the seeker must acquire wisdom, practice virtue, and learn detachment from worldly things. Life is the classroom for such spiritual transformation. "The pious fight," teaches Hermes, "consists in knowing the divine and doing ill to no man." A human being becomes divine as he or she reflects the divine virtues that are equivalent to the essential self, which is the image of God. Such a life includes praying and singing hymns of praise to God. It does not preclude marriage and a normal family life, according to Hermes.
Apollonius of Tyana
Unlike the figure of Hermes Trismegistus, who is veiled in the mists of legend, Apollonius of Tyana is a known historical figure. According to his chief biographer, Flavius Philostratus (c. 175 - 245), Apollonius lived to be over ninety years old and died near the end of the first Christian century. Recent scholarship puts Apollonius' life between approximately 40 - 120 C.E. The empress Julia Domna, who was born in Syrian Emesa in the eastern confines of the Roman empire where Apollonius had flourished, commissioned Philostratus to write the life of Apollonius, which was completed some time after Julia Domna's death in 217. Philostratus says of his sources:
I have gathered my materials partly from the many cities that were devoted to him, partly from the shrines which he set right when their rules had fallen into neglect, partly from what others have said about him, and partly from his own letters....But my more detailed information I have gathered from a...man called Damis who...became a disciple of Apollonius and has left an account of his master's journeys, on which he claims to have accompanied him, and also an account of his sayings, speeches and predictions....I have also read the book by Maximus of Aegae, which contains all that Apollonius did there....But it is best to ignore the four books which Moeragenes composed about Apollonius, because of the great ignorance of their subject that they display.
As to the reliability of Philostratus' work and the possibility of reconstructing an accurate historical picture of Apollonius of Tyana from it, modern historians generally agree that Philostratus fabricated much of his biography to please the expectations of his patroness. Such likely fabrications include the figure of Damis, the accounts of Apollonius' encounters with several Roman emperors, and Apollonius' journeys to India and Rome. He does not seem to have been known in Rome until the fourth century, when his legend became famous due to the controversy between Eusebius and Hierocles, which will be explained below. Philostratus himself was “a man of letters and a sophist full of passion for Greek Romance and for studies in rhetoric…hardly interested in the historical Apollonius.”
The works by Maximus and Moeragenes have not survived, although there is a reference to Moeragenes' work by Origen in his Contra Celsum, in which he mentions Moeragenes' view that Apollonius was both a philosopher and a magician. The earliest known mention of Apollonius is in Lucian's Alexander sive Pseudomantis written in about 180 C.E., in which he ridicules Alexander as a charlatan whose teacher had been a pupil of Apollonius. In sum, historical sources contemporary with Apollonius are silent about him, those remaining from the second century are sparse and fragmentary, and Philostratus' biography written in the first half of the third century is unreliable. Furthermore, there is no body of extant works by Apollonius in Greek or in Syriac (at least ones considered to be authentic) to give us an accurate picture of his teachings. All that remains from the Greek is a collection of about one hundred of his letters, most quite short and some probably fabricated after his death. A fragment from a work of Balínús entitled Concerning Sacrifices found in Eusebius was probably translated into Greek, because Philostratus says that Apollonius wrote this book in his “own language,” Syriac. Given this state of affairs, revealing the true Apollonius is a formidable if not impossible task. Nevertheless, Philostratus' Life of Apollonius and the letters give us a picture of Apollonius that cannot be entirely out of line.
Philostratus describes many of Apollonius' wonderful acts, but he chooses to stress his wisdom, his ascetic practices, and his mission to restore the purity of the ancient religions of the empire. That Apollonius could do things beyond the capability of ordinary men, Philostratus explains, was the result of the "knowledge which God reveals to wise men." His wonders consisted primarily of instances of divining the future, seeing or hearing things in visions, and healing the sick. In a case where he restored a young girl to life upon meeting her funeral procession, Philostratus comments: "He may have seen a spark of life in her which her doctors had not noticed, since apparently it was drizzling and steam was coming from her face."
As Christianity grew in size and power, some pagans felt compelled to respond to the miracles Christians attributed to Christ with their own stories about the miracles of Apollonius. The first to do so in writing, according to Eusebius of Caesarea, was Hierocles, a philosopher and the governor of Bithynia at that time (302 C.E.). He wrote a work called A Friend of the Truth in which he contrasts the wonderful works of Apollonius with the miracles of Christ as a proof to Christians that they should not claim divinity for Christ based on his miracles. Eusebius of Caesarea responded vehemently to Hierocles, not by disclaiming the virtue of Apollonius, but by discrediting Philostratus' biography of Apollonius. Lactantius, who heard Hierocles read his book publicly in Nicomedia, argued that Christ is divine, not because of the miracles he did, but because it was Jesus who had fulfilled the prophecies announced by the Jewish Prophets. As a result of this debate between Christians and pagans, Apollonius' legend as a wonder-worker began to grow and Philostratus' biography became popular. The cult at the temple of Asclepius in Aegaeae, where Apollonius had served as a healer of both bodies and souls, began to flourish again (as did many other temples loyal to his memory), until the emperor Constantine had this temple destroyed in 331 C.E.
Where did the legends of Apollonius' talismans come from? They are not mentioned by Philostratus, so they were either unknown to him, or he did not wish to speak about them. Maria Dzielska, whose book Apollonius of Tyana in Legend and History has been very helpful in constructing this account of Apollonius, has explained this question. Eusebius is the first to refer to them in his Contra Hieroclem. He says that "certain queer implements attributed to Apollonius were used in his times." After Eusebius, references to Apollonius' talismans begin to appear frequently. Pseudo-Justin mentions the dissemination of Apollonius' talismans in Antioch. It appears that these objects were so popular that Antioch's Church leaders decided to accept them. Pseudo-Justin illustrates the problem in a work containing a dialogue between a theologian and a Christian:
The Christian is concerned about the popularity and spread of Apollonius' talismans. He wonders how to explain their magical powers....He wonders why God...allows them....The theologian dispels his doubts saying that there is nothing evil about those objects because they were produced by Apollonius who was an expert in the powers governing nature and in the cosmic sympathies and antipathies...and that is why they did not contradict God's wisdom ruling the world.
The talismans, which were usually made out of stone or metal, were placed in cities to protect their inhabitants against plagues, wild animals, vermin, natural disasters, and the like. Two other centers in the Greek east where memories of Apollonius had been strongest, Agaeae and Tyana, were completely converted to Christianity by this time, so there is no mention of Apollonius' talismans there. However, surprisingly, in Constantinople itself Apollonius' talismans became popular. The sixth century Antiochian historian Malalas wrote that, during Domitian's rule Apollonius paid a visit Byzantium, where he left many talismans in order to help the Byzantines in their troubles. In the thirteenth century, in the hippodrome in Byzantium, there was still a bronze eagle holding a snake in its claws, which citizens said had been placed there by Apollonius to protect them against a scourge of venomous snakes. This talisman was destroyed by the crusaders in 1204.
What is left of Apollonius' reputation if we divest him from his time-honored epithet "the producer of talismans, the performer of wonders"? In Philostratus' Life of Apollonius, we are told that Apollonius was a man vigorously devoted to God and to the spiritual life, and one who accepted all creeds as diverse expressions of one universal religion. In a letter to his brother, he writes: "All men, so I believe, belong to the family of God and are of one nature; everyone experiences the same emotions, regardless of the place or condition of a person's birth, whether he is a barbarian or a Greek, so long as he is a human being." In the fragment from the work of Apollonius called Concerning Sacrifices, he advises: "It is best to make no sacrifice to God at all, no lighting a fire, no calling Him by any name that men employ for things of sense. For God is over all, the first; and only after Him do come the other gods. For He doth stand in need of naught, even from the gods, much less from us small men....The only fitting sacrifice to God is man's best reason [i.e., man's "showing to God his own perfection" according to Dzielska, and not the word that comes out of his mouth."
Wherever he traveled, Apollonius is said to have discouraged the use of animals for sacrifice, and encouraged the use of incense instead. Philostratus relates that he refused to eat meat and subsisted on a diet of fruits and vegetables. As part of his daily regimen, Apollonius prayed three times a day: at daybreak, mid-day, and at sundown. Damis describes his manner as gentle and modest, yet if some injustice was being committed he would be the first to speak out against it. For example, in a letter to some Roman officials, he states: "Some of you take care of harbors, buildings, walls, and walkways. But, as for the children in the cities or the young people or the women, neither you nor the laws give them any thought. If things were otherwise, it would be good to be governed by you." In a letter to Valerius, we learn something about his opinion on human immortality: "There is no death of anything except in appearance only, just as there is no birth of anything except in appearance only. For the passage of something from the realm of pure substance into that of nature appears to be birth, and likewise the passage of something from the realm of nature into that of pure substance appears to be death."
The Islamic Hermetic Tradition
It is not clear when Hermetic works first became known to Muslims. According to the great catalogist Ibn an-Nadím, some alchemical treatises were known and used by Khálid (d. c. 720), son of the Umayyad Caliph Yazíd II. Later, the famous Muslim alchemist, Jábir ibn Hayyán (722 - 815), developed a good part of his own cosmological system from the Sirr al-Khalíqa (The Secret of Creation) attributed to Balínús (i.e., Apollonius of Tyana), which Balínús says he derived from the Kitáb al-`Ilal (The Book of Causes) of Hermes. In his works, Jábir also claims to have been an intimate disciple of the sixth Shí`í Imam, Ja`far as-Sádiq (d. 765), who acted as “Jábir's critic and guide par excellence.” Although Jábir's link to Ja`far as-Sádiq and the traditional dating and authorship of the Jabirian corpus have been challenged by Paul Kraus in his monumental study, recent and more critical scholarship by Syed Nomanul Haq shows that Kraus was unduely skeptical in his judgment. The name Hermes and perhaps Persian versions of Hermetic texts were also known during the reign of Hárún ar-Rashíd (786 - 809). Ar-Rashíd's Persian librarian and court astrologer, Abú Sahl al-Fadl, mentions a Babylonian Hermes, whose works were translated into Pahlavi during the reign of the Sasanian monarch Shápúr. Abú Sahl is said to have translated some of those works for ar-Rashíd.
Whatever the case may be, the identification of Hermes with the qur'ánic Idrís, who had already been identified with Enoch by the Jews, was made by the psuedo-Sabians of Harrán during the reign of al-Ma'mún. In the words of Mas`údí (d. 959): "Enoch is identical with the Prophet Idrís; the Sabians say he is the same person as Hermes." Harrán, in Syria, had remained a stronghold of pagan religion and learning where Christianity had not been able to penetrate. Here, it seems that both philosophical and technical Hermetica were well-known and in use. The story of al-Ma`mún's encounter with the Harránians is related by Ibn an-Nadím, who took his account from that of a Christian named Abú Yúsuf Aysha' al-Qatí`í. According to this account, the caliph was on a military expedition into the land of the Byzantines, during which time he was received by people who came to swear allegiance to him. Among them were the Harráians. When al-Ma`mún asked them about their religion, they were unable to give a satisfactory answer. Al-Ma`mún said: "Then you must be heretics and worshipers of idols; your blood is lawful....You must choose either Islam or any of the religions which God has mentioned in His Book, otherwise you shall be exterminated." To escape from this impasse, the Harránians identified themselves with the Mandaean Sabians mentioned in the Qur`án, and said that their Prophets were Hermes and Agathodaimon (said to be the Biblical Seth), and their scriptures the writings of Hermes.
Al-Kindí (c. 850) gives an account of the teachings of the Harránian Hermeticists, which was recorded in the memoir of Ahmad ibn ath-Thayyib, which bears some resemblance to teachings found in the Greek philosophical Hermetica:
The Sabians with one accord teach as follows: The world has one First Author, who has never ceased to be, who is unique and without plurality, and to whom none of the attributes of caused things are applicable. He (God) imposed on those of his creatures that are endowed with the faculty of judgment the duty of acknowledging his supremacy; he revealed to them the right way (of life and thought), and sent emissaries (Prophets) to guide them aright, and to establish proofs (of God's existence). He bade these Prophets summon men to (live according to) God's good pleasure, and warn them of God's wrath....According to their opinion, the rewards and punishments will affect the spirit only, and will not be postponed to an appointed time [i.e. there is no resurrection of the body, and no one Day of Judgment for all mankind together].
The Arabic Hermetic writings, a large share of which belong to the technical category, are numerous, and many of these texts have yet to be investigated. "The Book of Causes" of Hermes, adopted by Balínús under the title of The Secret of Creation, has already been mentioned. It ranges from explaining the metaphysical origin of the universe to considerations on the ontological categories of the world and the nature of the human soul. The Arabic version of this book is no doubt based on an original written in Syriac, Balínús' native tongue. A Christian monk of Neapolis in Palestine named Sájiyús states that he translated the work (into Arabic?) "so that those who remain after me may have the benefit of reading it." A number of the sayings of Hermes quoted in the Má' al-Waraqí (The Silvery Water) by Ibn Umail have been shown to be derived from Greek alchemy texts. Arabic authors who have included collections of philosophical and ethical sayings attributed to Hermes in their works include Ibn al-Qiftí, al-Shahrastání, Hunayn ibn Isháq, Miskawayh, Ibn Durayd, al-Mubashshir, and Abú Sulaymán al-Mantiqí. A discourse by Hermes to the human soul in Arabic, Mu`ádilat an-Nafs, was translated into Latin under the title Hermes de Castigatione Animae. Scott says of this work: "The doctrines taught in [it] have been derived from the similar doctrines taught in Greek writings; and it seems not unlikely that some of them are more or less exact translations of Greek Hermetica which were written in Egypt before A.D. 300, and were included in the collection of Hermetica which the Harranian Sabians, in A.D. 830, put forward as their scripture."
From the time of al-Ma`mún on references to Hermes and the Hermetic writings are frequent in the writings of Muslim philosophers and historians. Their view and that held by their Christian contemporaries in the West continued to be the view held by many people in antiquity: Hermes was a divine sage or Prophet and the founder of sciences and wisdom. Coming closer to the time of Bahá'u'lláh, the Safavid philosopher Mullá Sadrá (d. 1640) writes: "Know that wisdom originally began with Adam and his progeny Seth and Hermes....And it is the greatest Hermes who propagated it throughout the regions of the world...and made it emanate upon the true worshipers. He is the Father of the philosophers and the master of those who are the masters of the sciences."
As for Balínús, he carries into Islam the same contradictory reputation that followed him in the Roman empire. In one view, he is presented as a magician, who, in various cities of the Middle East, erected talismans (consecrated objects) to protect their inhabitants from floods, famines, insects, and the like. The Kitáb at-Talásim al-Akbar (The Great Book of Talismans), addressed by Balínús to his son, is a book of this category. It partly matches up with a Greek pseudo-epigraph titled The Book of Wisdom of Apollonius of Tyana, which Dzielska believes was composed no earlier than the late fifth century, probably in Antioch by Christian Gnostics. For example, when Balínús is threatened by one of the Roman emperors with death, he miraculously escapes to Antioch through a basin that had been prepared for him in the palace. A demon was frightening the inhabitants of Antioch, when Balínús, in the middle of being bled, reduces him to obedience with one word, obliges him to serve his bath, and then chases him through the eastern gate of the city. Upon the request of the inhabitants, he regulates the flow of the river and places talismans against the lice and rats. This tradition of Balínús, therefore, must have found its way into Islam some time after the Muslims conquered Syria.
Jábir ibn Hayyán, like Philostratus earlier, defends a different picture of Balínús. In his Kitáb al-Baht, he criticizes vehemently such stories of magical exploits and attributes them to the inventions of charlatans and liars. If Balínús is truly the master of talismans, according to Jábir, it is not due to magic but to his perfect knowledge of the properties of things. For Jábir and other Muslim scientists, Balínús was primarily a natural philosopher, and they attribute to him several cosmological, astrological, and alchemical treatises. Among these are the Sirr al-Khalíqa, mentioned above, and the Dhakhírat al-Iskandar (The Treasury of Alexander). In the introduction to the latter, Aristotle is made to present the book to Alexander, which he says was given to him by Balínús, who retrieved it from a watery tomb, where Hermes had deposited it for safekeeping. The book discusses, among other things, the principles of alchemy and the manufacture of elixirs, the composition of poisons and their antidotes, and the use of talismans for healing. Jábir ibn Hayyán also wrote ten books according to the opinion of Balínús (`alá ra'y Balínús). A collection of sayings from Balínús in Arabic have come into Latin under the title Dicta Belini. There is also a work in Arabic by a disciple of Apollonius named Artefius, called Miftáh al-Hikmat (The Key to Wisdom).
Hermes Trismegistus and Apollonius of Tyana in the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh
With this information as background, it is now possible to answer the first question posed in the introduction: what is the relevance of the Islamic Hermetic tradition to Bahá'í thought? Bahá'u'lláh's reference to Hermes/Idrís as the first person to devote himself to philosophy and how Balínús derived his knowledge from the Hermetic writings has already been cited in the introduction. Another passage, along these lines, can be found in Bahá'u'lláh's Lawh-i-Hikmat (Tablet of Wisdom), here cited in full:
I will also mention for thee the invocation voiced by Balínús, who was familiar with the theories put forward by the Father of Philosophy [Hermes] regarding the mysteries of creation as given in his chrysolite tablets....This man hath said: “I am Balínús, the wise one, the performer of wonders, the producer of talismans.” He surpassed everyone else in the diffusion of arts and sciences and soared unto the loftiest heights of humility and supplication. Give ear unto that which he hath said, entreating the All-Possessing, the Most Exalted: “I stand in the presence of my Lord, extolling His gifts and bounties and praising Him with that wherewith He praiseth His Own Self, that I may become a source of blessing and guidance unto such men as acknowledge my words.” And further he saith: “O Lord! Thou art God and no God is there but Thee. Thou art the Creator and no creator is there except Thee. Assist me by Thy grace and strengthen me. My heart is seized with alarm, my limbs tremble, I have lost my reason and my mind hath failed me. Bestow upon me strength and enable my tongue to speak forth with wisdom.” And still further he saith: “Thou art in truth the Knowing, the Wise, the Powerful, the Compassionate.” It was this man of wisdom who became informed of the mysteries of creation and discerned the subtleties which lie enshrined in the Hermetic writings.
Balínús' exclamation: “I am Balínús, the wise one, the performer of wonders, the producer of talismans,” quoted by Bahá'u'lláh, can be found in the introduction to the Sirr al-Khalíqa. This statement may be a literary stock piece derived from the tradition that primarily regards Apollonius as a miracle worker. As for the supplications of Balínús to God cited by Bahá'u'lláh, they can also be found verbatim in the Sirr al-Khalíqa. They do reflect faithfully the picture of Apollonius given by Philostratus as one devoted to serving the one God behind the many. On the question of Bahá'u'lláh citing from ancient accounts, Juan Cole has established that several passages in the Tablet of Wisdom about the Greek philosophers are actually quotations from the works of Muslim historians such as Abu'l-Fath ash-Shahristání (1076 – 1153) and `Imámu'd-Dín Abu'l-Fidá' (1273 – 1331).
According to Balínús in the Sirr al-Khalíqa, God brought the universe into existence in the following manner:
The first thing to be created was God's Word: “Let there be so and so.” That Word was the cause of all creation, all other created things being the effects thereof….Now, there is no doubt that a caused thing has a cause; otherwise, it would be self-subsistent (fard), and this is manifestly not the case. Next it must be asked whether its cause is connected to it or not, for if it is connected [i.e., ontologically similar], then the cause is created, and if it is not connected to it [i.e., ontologically different], then it is not created and not, therefore, a cause. As we have explained, it is not possible for the Creator to be the cause of what He has created, because the cause must resemble in certain respects that of which it is the cause and differ in other respects, while the Creator has no resemblance to His creation whatsoever. Verily, the cause [of creation] must needs be other than God. It is, as we have described, the likeness of all created things in one respect and their contrary in another. Indeed, the Word of God—exalted be His glory—is higher and far superior to that which the senses can perceive. For it is neither a property nor a substance, neither hot nor cold, neither dry nor moist. But it was through it that all these things came to be. It is the Permission of God and His Command. Man cannot grasp the Word of God, for he is powerless to comprehend anything that transcends his own station. The human intellect is only capable of grasping what is associated with it in the realm of creation, because it is of the world and the world is of it, and man apprehends it according to his own capacity.
The first thing to arise after God's Word was action (fi`l). By action motion is implied, and by motion heat. This was the beginning of natural causation. Then, when motion diminished and ceased the opposite state of rest occurred, and by rest coldness is implied. That motion, which is the heat, is the spirit of our Father, Adam.
Balínús goes on to explain how the four elements were formed and the heavenly bodies, and plants and animals, the crowning goal of the process of creation being human beings. This picture of creation is strikingly close to the theory for creation given by Bahá'u'lláh in the Lawh-i-Hikmat. There, Bahá'u'lláh similarly states that the Word of God is "the cause of the entire creation, while all else besides His Word are but the creatures and the effects thereof." He goes on to say that this transcendent reality, the Word of God, "is higher and far superior to that which the senses can perceive, for it is sanctified from any property or substance....[It] is none but the Command of God which pervadeth all created things."
Bahá'í texts likewise take the position that God is not the cause of contingent beings in a necessary sense, wherein cause and effect share the same substratum of existence. The idea of creation as a necessary emanation from the Creator was accepted by most of the Islamic philosophers. Bahá'u'lláh, however, follows the position of the Islamic theologians in teaching that God is the creator of the world by choice. As a voluntary agent, God's relation to contingent existence is one of beneficence only. As it is expressed in Bahá'u'lláh's Hidden Words: "I loved thy creation, hence I created thee." God has willed creation into being freely, out of love. It is the Will, or Word, of God, which is God's first “emanation” (first in the sense of priority, not time), that has a necessary connection to created things, such that Bahá'u'lláh calls nature both "God's will and...its expression." In other words, the Will of God, once issued from the Supreme Godhead, necessarily manifests nature and all the beings in the universe, and it is itself, according to `Abdu'l-Bahá, identical to the inner realities of all created things.
Bahá'u'lláh continues to follow the cosmology of the Sirr al-Khalíqa very closely: the first thing to be generated from the Word of God is heat, and this heat is the cause of all motion in the universe. Although Balínús seems to equate heat and motion in the passage cited above, a little later when discussing the origin of the elements, he clarifies that “the cause of motion is heat, and the cause of rest is coldness.” In Bahá'u'lláh's scheme, the Word of God possesses two complementary poles, one active and the other receptive, for Bahá'u'lláh states in the Lawh-i-Hikmat that "the world of existence came into being through the heat generated from the interaction between the active force and that which is its recipient." It is my opinion that the active force and the recipient mentioned by Bahá'u'lláh in the Lawh-i-Hikmat correspond to the incorporeal, eternal Forms of Plato and primary matter, the passive, formless medium for their reflection. This notion is further confirmed by Bahá'u'lláh in one of his tablets wherein he says: “The meaning of the active force is the lord of the species (rabb-i naw`), and it has other meanings.” In the terminology of the Illuminationist philosophers, the lords of species are the same as Platonic Forms, which are the formal causes of the individual members of species over which they have influence.
In Bahá'í texts, as in the Sirr al-Khalíqa, the formative, purposeful motion, which is the effect of the heat generated by the Word of God, becomes, first of all, the four elements (also called by Bahá'u'lláh the two agents and the two patients, and which should not be confused with the active force and its recipient). For example, Bahá'u'lláh states in the Lawh-i-Ayiy-i-Núr: "Know that the first tokens brought into existence by the pre-existent Cause in the worlds of creation are the four elements: fire, air, water, and earth." These four elements are equivalent to the four basic states of matter in the modern sense: solid, gaseous, liquid, and radiant, and they were understood in a similar way by the ancient philosophers.
The theory of creation presented in the Lawh-i-Hikmat and other Bahá'í texts focuses chiefly on the metaphysical origin of existence. Bahá'u'lláh, in most cases, leaves the explanation of physical processes in nature to science, advising researcher to observe nature carefully, rather than to impose pre-conceived models on reality: "Look at the world and ponder a while upon it. It unveileth the book of its own self before thine eyes and...it will acquaint thee with that which is within it and upon it and will give thee such clear explanations as to make thee independent of every eloquent expounder."
Another Bahá'í text wherein Bahá'u'lláh mentions Hermes and Apollonius together is one of the Tablets of the Elixir (alwáh-i iksír). In this text, Bahá'u'lláh quotes part of the Emerald Tablet of Hermes, which alchemists claim conceals the secret of their craft. Bahá'u'lláh relates:
Balínús, the sage, upheld the same view and mentioned the inscription on the Tablet held in the hand of Hermes. He said: "In truth and of a certainty, there is no doubt that the higher is from the lower and the lower is from the higher. The working of wonders is from one as all things came from one. Its father is the sun and its mother is the moon." Furthermore, He said: "The subtle is nobler than the gross. The light of lights with the power of the All-Powerful causeth the earth to ascend to heaven and then causeth it to descend. It holdeth sway over both earth and heaven, higher and lower." [translation revised since publication]
This passage can be found in its entirety on two pages of Jábir ibn Hayyán's Kitáb Ustuqus al-Uss. According to the account recorded in the introduction to the Sirr al-Khalíqa, Balínús discovered both the Emerald Tablet of Hermes and the "Book of Causes" while exploring a crypt beneath a statue of Hermes:
Thus, I found myself across from an old man seated upon a golden throne who was holding in his hand an emerald Tablet on which was written: “Here is the craft of nature.” And in front of him was a book on which was written: “Here is the secret of creation and the science of the causes of all things.” With complete trust I took the book [and the Tablet] and went out from the crypt. Thereafter, with the help of the book, I was able to learn the secrets of creation, and through the Tablet, I succeeded in understanding the craft of nature.
The full text of the Emerald Tablet can be found at the end of the Sirr al-Khalíqa. The first part that Bahá'u'lláh quotes is very close to the version given in the Sirr al-Khalíqa (reading variant L), but the second part does not quite correspond with any of the variants given by the editor. According to the Aleppo edition prepared by Ursula Weisser, the full text of the Emerald Tablet reads:
In truth and of a certainty, there is no doubt that the higher is from the lower and the lower is from the higher. The working of wonders is from one as all things came from one by the treatment of the one. Its father is the sun and its mother is the moon. The wind has borne it in its belly, and the earth has nourished it. It is the father of talismans, the bearer of wonders, and the perfecter of powers--a fire which became earth. Separate the earth from the fire, [for] the subtle is nobler than the gross, with care and prudence. It ascends from earth to heaven and then descends back to the earth. Within it is the power of the higher and the lower, for it has acquired the light of lights, and darkness thus flees from it. This is the power of all powers which conquers everything subtle and penetrates everything solid. In accord with the creation of the universe is the creative operation of the work. This is my glory, and for this reason I am called Hermes Trismegistus [“thrice great”]. [translation revised since publication]
Kraus is of the opinion that the cosmology and metaphysics presented in the Sirr al-Khalíqa ultimately have the "craft of nature" in mind, what Bahá'u'lláh usually refers to as the "hidden craft." In other words, the Sirr al-Khalíqa introduces the theoretical framework necessary for understanding and practicing the craft of nature. The Emerald Tablet itself teaches in veiled language how to produce the alchemical elixir, that which is born from a single thing, yet whose father is the sun and whose mother is the moon, which "conquers everything subtle and penetrates everything solid."
Bahá'u'lláh mentions or alludes to the hidden craft in about forty different tablets, and more may yet come to light. In ten of these he gives detailed explanations of its practice, explanations which depend for their proper interpretation upon correctly decoding the names used to describe different stages of the process. Bahá'u'lláh's descriptions of the hidden craft typically abound in metaphors, and he uses such terms as "sun" and "moon," “father” and “mother,” and the members of the four elements mentioned above. Regarding the use of this metaphorical terminology, Bahá'u'lláh explains: "These various names are the protectors of this treasure of the One True Lord, that the truth of it might remain hidden from the ignorant and preserved from the deceptive in heart."
Bahá'u'lláh believed in the truth of the hidden craft. For example, he wrote to one of his followers: "This is that which hath been called the hidden craft and the concealed secret by the tongues of the philosophers. By My life, assuredly it is a noble science. Whosoever God aideth unto it and its knowledge shall become apprised of the secrets of creation and independent from all save God. He shall be confident in the power of his Lord and shall be of those who are well-assured." In regard to the basic objective of the hidden craft, Bahá'u'lláh says: "In short, the object of the hidden craft is this: From one thing the four elements should be separated, and, after the purification of each of these elements from their non-essential drosses, these elements should be made one thing by dissolution and congelation."
Furthermore, Bahá'u'lláh explains: "If thou art able to separate anything in heaven or on earth and marry all of it together again, after purification, so that it becomes one thing, the secret of this great mystery will become clear to thee...for this principle hath encompassed the contingent world and all created things both inwardly and outwardly." Although these words may refer to a physical process that Bahá'u'lláh has in mind, they have a clear parallel in the process of spiritual transformation, both individually and collectively. Alchemy as a mirror for psychological or spiritual transformation has a long tradition, going back at least to the time of Zosimus (c. 300). For example, on the individual level, through suffering and life experience (separation), a human being can learn and grow, become purified from harmful habits and characteristics, and finally become a more integrated and whole person.
It is worth noting that in the same tablet in which Bahá'u'lláh praises the hidden craft, he dismisses other secret sciences (`ulúm al-gharíba): "Know that most of what thou hast heard about these sciences is such as doth not 'fatten nor appease the hunger', even were one to look attentively into them."
Despite his endorsement of the hidden craft, Bahá'u'lláh prohibited his followers from engaging in it, except for one or two individuals who were probably also the recipients of most of the practical elixir tablets. To others who asked, Bahá'u'lláh's typical response was, as placed into the mouth of his secretary Mírzá Aqá Ján: "Every soul desirous to work with this craft was forbidden by Him. He said: 'The time for it has not come. Be patient until God brings it forth in His time'." Bahá'u'lláh's purpose in prohibiting the practice of the hidden craft among his followers also appears to have been for their own protection, for he says: "Many who occupied themselves with the elixir and the science of divination lost their minds on account of their imaginings and the concentration of their thoughts, and evidences of insanity were observed in them."
I know of only one other Tablet of Bahá'u'lláh that mentions a statement made by Hermes, though more such texts may come to light. In response to a Bahá'í, who was asking about the uncertainty of events and the inconstancy of the world, Bahá'u'lláh responded:
The world has never had nor does it now possess stability (thabát), notwithstanding the complaints of some unfaithful and wavering souls. But, in truth, whatever takes place is well-pleasing, for the divine wisdom has ordained it. Without His command and will, not a leaf can stir, and whatever occurs is conformable to wisdom. All must be contented with it, nay eagerly desire it. However, in some cases, such as when the sweetness of reunion [with God] gives way to the bitterness of separation and, likewise, when, by the decree of remoteness, nearness and meeting are banished--this causes sighs of sorrow and grief to be upraised and the tears to flow. Otherwise, the matter is as some of the philosophers have cited from the words of Idrís [Hermes]: “It is impossible for the realm of creation to be better than it already is.”
In addition to its mention of Hermes/Idrís, this passage is important in itself in regard to the question of God's determinism versus human free will. This theme is discussed in many other Bahá'í texts, which indicate that it is not a question of one or the other, but of both. In other words, God's predestination of things and human free will work together to effect the outcome of history. What God has predestined is the laws of nature, such that necessary cause and effect relationships exist between all created things. `Abdu'l-Bahá explains: "For example, God hath created a relation between the sun and the terrestrial globe that the rays of the sun should shine and the soil should yield. These relationships constitute predestination, and the manifestation thereof in the plane of existence is fate. Will is that active force which controlleth these relationships and these incidents." This is why Bahá'u'lláh states that "without His command and will not a leaf can stir." The natural relationships existing between things are according to God's perfect wisdom, such that the universe cannot be better than it is, as given by Hermes. In other words, the determinism evident in the laws of nature is due to their perfection, and God does not change what is already perfect, although possessing the power to do so.
Since human beings are part of the web of life, they too cause events and receive the effects of events. But unlike other creatures who live perforce in harmony with nature's laws, human beings have a choice in observing these laws, insofar as they include ethical and spiritual principles meant to guide human actions. In other words, the circumstances that affect human beings during the course of life are part of the web of predestination, but how we choose to react to circumstances is not determined.
Human free will is also created in accord with the wisdom and love of God and, like everything else, it receives the power to act from the Primal Will of God. `Abdu'l-Bahá compares the condition of the human will to the captain of a ship who is able to turn the ship in whatever direction he wishes, but is dependent on the power of wind or steam to move the ship. This wind or steam is analogous to the Will of God, and without it a human being cannot carry out either good or evil actions. In sum, human beings and natural phenomena are secondary agents that directly effect the course of history, whereas God's Will is the necessary cause sustaining the existence of these secondary agents, and giving them the power to act.
The Hermetic writings describe a similar picture of determinism and free will. Human beings must choose to act, but may act either morally or like brutes. It is in this context only (the spirit) that Hermes indicated that human beings can achieve freedom from destiny. The body, however, was always regarded as held by the chains of multiple causes. The Alexandrian alchemist Zosimus refers Hermes' book On Natural Dispositions in which Hermes condemns those who seek to evade fate for self-aggrandizing reasons:
Hermes calls such people mindless, only marchers swept along in the procession of fate, with no conception of anything incorporeal, and with no understanding of fate itself, which conducts them justly. Instead they insult the instruction it gives through corporeal experience, and imagine nothing beyond the good fortune it grants.
From the foregoing it is evident that the Hermetic tradition is relevant to Bahá'í studies in several ways. For example, Bahá'u'lláh refers to Balínús as one who discerned the mysteries of creation "which lie enshrined in the Hermetic writings." Bahá'u'lláh's teachings on creation in his Lawh-i-Hikmat are seen to correspond very closely to the theory of creation contained in the Sirr al-Khalíqa.
A comparison of Bahá'í alchemy texts with the Emerald Tablet of Hermes and other alchemy texts is beyond the scope of this essay. However, the principles alluded to in the Emerald Tablet resemble statements made by Bahá'u'lláh on the same subject. Likewise, a comparison of Jábir's alchemy writings, which rely heavily on Hermetic sources, with Bahá'í alchemy texts will no doubt reveal many specific parallels.
The philosophical-theological texts of the Hermetica will likely prove a fruitful ground for comparison, due to their strong Platonic tendency and their close connection to religious doctrines found in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Religious scholars from each of these religions, especially during the Middle Ages, held Hermes in high regard for this very reason. The Hermetic position on human will and fate, however briefly touched upon, is seen to have an affinity to the corresponding Bahá'í teachings.
Lastly, as a corollary issue, what attitude should Bahá'ís take toward Bahá'u'lláh's references to Hermes and Balínús in view of the declared infallibility of Bahá'í scripture? In my opinion, there are two possible perspectives for Bahá'ís to take. The first is to accept a non-metaphorical statement given in revelation as factually true, by virtue of the authority invested in the Manifestation of God, even though by the standard of current academic scholarship it is considered improbable. (This, of course, does not include passages that are obviously meant to be interpreted symbolically according to the standard given by Bahá'u'lláh in the Kitáb-i Íqán.)
For example, `Abdu'l-Bahá teaches categorically that Socrates journeyed to Palestine and Syria and there learned the doctrines of the unity of God and the immortality of the human soul from the Jewish divines. He continues that “this is authentic” even though it “cannot be found in the Jewish histories.” When Shoghi Effendi was asked about the discrepancy between this position and current views in Greek historiography, he answered: “We have no historical proof of the truth of the Master's statement regarding the Greek philosophers visiting the Holy Land, etc. but such proof may come to light through research in the future.” Shoghi Effendi does not compromise the Bahá'í principle of the essential harmony existing between science, as a method of acquiring truth about reality, and religion, as a vehicle of inspired knowledge, but he does deny the correctness of a particular modern historical perspective. The difference in conclusions depends on the initial premises. Because of lack of historical evidence, those who do not recognize the possibility of a divine source for historical knowledge logically deduce that Socrates did not acquire any of his theories from Jewish divines.
If this first perspective is applied to Bahá'u'lláh's statements about Hermes and Balínús, then the believer will accept as factual that Hermes was a real individual of great antiquity whose historicity has been lost in the mists of legend, and view the Hermetica not as mere syncretistic creations of the early Roman empire, but as authentic, albeit Hellenized, descendants of Egyptian religious doctrines originating with Thoth, doctrines which were later discovered and propagated by Balínús and accepted by the philosophers who followed Balínús in the Hermetic tradition.
How does this position hold up against the findings of modern scholarship in the field of Hermetic studies? First, let us look at Bahá'u'lláh's assertion that Hermes was the “first person who devoted himself to philosophy.” There is no historical evidence by which this statement can be proved or disproved. Rather, it is an assertion that can only be accepted on the authority of Bahá'u'lláh and the Hermetic textual tradition preceding Bahá'u'lláh. The modern dating of the earliest philosophical Hermetic texts from the late first to the late third centuries is not contrary to anything Bahá'u'lláh has stated, since Bahá'u'lláh only affirms the great antiquity of Hermes, not the texts associated with his name. As for Bahá'u'lláh's statement that Balínús “derived his knowledge and sciences from the Hermetic Tablets,” this is seemingly more problematic because Hermes is not mentioned in Philostratus' Life of Apollonius, where he should be mentioned if Apollonius/Balínús gained his knowledge from the Hermetic texts. However, in view of the fact that Philostratus' biography is considered to be unreliable as a historical source by most modern scholars of the subject, we should not be surprised if Philostratus has left out many crucial details about Apollonius' life and sources of inspiration. Since nothing in Bahá'u'lláh's account of Hermes and Balínús can be shown to be in opposition to historical facts, there is no reason why Bahá'ís should not accept Bahá'u'lláh's statements, in this case, as factually intended. The statements, however, are also not verified by known historical facts.
The second perspective, which it is possible for Bahá'ís to take in the absence of an authoritative statement in Bahá'í scriptures stating that a certain revealed passage is to be understood literally as stated, is for the believer to adopt a more broadly contextual view of particular statements embedded in revelation. Juan Cole has taken the position that some statements embedded in revelation, such as Bahá'u'lláh's quotation from Shahrastání that “Empedocles…was a contemporary of David, while Pythagoras lived in the days of Soloman,” are “factually inaccurate by any standards of reasoning and historical documentation available to contemporary historians,” while at the same time these statements do not invalidate “the central propositions contained in the Tablet of Wisdom.” In other words, Bahá'u'lláh's intention in revealing these statements is what is essential, not the historical accounts themselves. The Universal House of Justice, in a letter written on its behalf, states: “The fact that Bahá'u'lláh makes such statements [the historical accounts in the Lawh-i Hikmat], for the sake of illustrating the spiritual principles that He wishes to convey, does not necessarily mean that He is endorsing their historical accuracy.”
This view focuses on the Bahá'í principle of the relativity of religious truth, according to which religious teachings, as given by the Prophets, are suited particularly to the age in which they appear and are colored by the traditions and thoughts of the people living in the time of the Prophet. For example, `Abdu'l-Bahá says that earlier Prophets referred to the seven celestial spheres of the Ptolemaic cosmos without trying to correct peoples perceptions by explaining to them the true structure of the universe. "Such references," he explains, "were dictated by the conventional wisdom prevailing in those times, for every cycle has its own characteristics which are determined by the capacities of the people." Bahá'u'lláh likewise refers to the “fourth heaven” of the early astronomers without explanation in the Kitáb-i Íqán because this book, according to Shoghi Effendi, “was revealed for the guidance of that sect [the Shí`ah],” where “this term was used in conformity with the concepts of its followers.”
In the same way, the Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh mentioning Hermes and Balínús were addressed to individuals who were familiar with the Islamic Hermetic tradition, which was particularly strong in Iran. Within such a milieu, it would be reasonable for Bahá'u'lláh to use this tradition, without regard for its historical accuracy, to support the teaching he wished to convey. In the Lawh-i Hikmat, for example, Bahá'u'lláh is intent on affirming, through his accounts of certain Greek philosophers, their ultimate dependence upon the inspiration of the Prophets (particularly the doctrine of monotheism) as the only basis for developing an accurate system of metaphysics. The theories of these philosophers, in turn, had a significant impact on the development of Western civilization. He says:
Consider Greece. We made it a Seat of Wisdom for a prolonged period…
Although it is recognized that the contemporary men of learning are highly qualified in philosophy, arts and crafts, yet were anyone to observe with a discriminating eye he would readily comprehend that most of this knowledge hath been acquired from the sages of the past, for it is they who have laid the foundations of philosophy, reared its structure and reinforced its pillars. Thus doth thy Lord, the Ancient of Days, inform thee. The sages aforetime acquired their knowledge from the Prophets, inasmuch as the latter were the Exponents of divine philosophy and the Revealers of heavenly mysteries. Men quaffed the crystal, living waters of Their utterance, while others satisfied themselves with the dregs.
Since, from the second perspective, the accuracy of the historical details about Hermes and Balínús set forth by Bahá'u'lláh is not essential to the intention of the text, those details may be dispensed with, or regarded as insignificant. In regard to Bahá'u'lláh's words in the Lawh-i Hikmat that Empedocles and Pythagoras were contemporaries of David and Soloman, Shoghi Effendi advises: “We must not take this statement too literally.” The comparison made earlier in this paper, however, between the cosmology of Balínús in the Sirr al-Khalíqa and the cosmology of Bahá'u'lláh in the Lawh-i Hikmat, demonstrates that (historical views aside) Bahá'u'lláh considers Hermes and Balínús to be true sources of knowledge about the secrets of creation. He agrees with certain ideas that tradition says they supported, and he used them as examples within a culture that recognized them in order to support his own teachings.
1. Bahá'u'lláh, Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas (Haifa: Bahá'í World Centre, 1978) p. 148.
2. Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 148n. In the final sentence of this passage in the Persian, it is not clear whether the antecedent of the pronoun is Hermes or Balínús. The sentence literally reads: “Most of the philosophers made their philosophical and scientific discoveries from the words and statements of that blessed being (hadrat).” It is clear, though, that Bahá'u'lláh intends Hermes as the ancient source from which many philosophers derived their inspiration, and Balínús was the first to discover the Hermetic wisdom after it had been concealed for a long period of time.
3. Quoted in L. Kákosy, "Problems of the Thoth-Cult in Roman Egypt," Acta Archaeologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 15 (1963) p. 124; see also Garth Fowden, The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987) pp. 22-31 for the evolution of Hermes Trismegistus from Thoth.
4. Plato, Phaedrus 274d.
5. Ibid., 274c.
6. Kákosy, “Problems of the Thoth-Cult.”
7. Ibid., p. 125.
8. Fowden, Egyptian Hermes, p. 23.
10. Walter Scott, Hermetica: The Ancient Greek and Latin Writings which Contain Religious or Philosophical Teachings Ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus, vol. 1 (Boston: Shambhala, 1985) pp. 4-5.
11. Plato, Philebus 18b.
12. Ammianus Marcellinus, The Later Roman Empire (A.D. 354-378) sel. and trans. Walter Hamilton (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), p. 228.
13. Quoted in Jack Lindsay, The Origins of Alchemy in Graeco-Roman Egypt (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1970) p. 107.
14. For this view that Bahá'u'lláh may be consciously and deliberately selecting from the Hermetic tradition only those parts that he regards to be true, I owe a great debt of thanks to Wendy Heller. She has pointed out the dangers of trying to interpret Bahá'u'lláh's words by reference to historical context alone: “Bahá'u'lláh often infuses new meanings into traditional concepts and terms through his usage of them. The Prophet, above all, is not bound by the conventional thought that characterizes any historical era, but often radically challenges and corrects it” (personal communication to the author).
15. Jonathan Barnes, Early Greek Philosophy (New York: Penguin Books, 1987) p. 15.
16. Lactantius, The Divine Institutes, trans. Sister Mary F. McDonald (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1964) I, vi.
17. Augustine, The City of God in Great Books of the Western World, vol. 18, trans. Marcus Dods (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952) viii, 23. Book viii, chapters 23 through 26 contain Augustine's ideas about Hermes.
18. See Walter Scott, Hermetica. Scott's commentary on the Hermetica is contained in vols. 2-3, while the testimonia, addenda, and indices are in vol. 4.
19. André-Jean Festugière, La révélation d'Hermès Trismégiste, 4 vols. (Paris 1944-1954); and Garth Fowden, The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind (Cambridge 1987).
20. Fowden, Egyptian Hermes, pp. 8-9.
21. Ibid., p. 10.
23. Ibid. p. 11; see also Scott, Hermetica, vol. 1, pp. 9-10.
24. Fowden, Egyptian Hermes, p. 198.
25. John Scarborough, "Hermetic and Related Texts in Classical Antiquity," Hermeticism and the Renaissance, ed. I. Merkel and A. G. Debus (London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1988) p. 22.
26. Abammonis Ad Porphyrium Responsum and Scott's notes on this text in Hermetica, vol. 4, pp. 40-102.
27. William C. Grese, "Magic in Hellenistic Hermeticism" in Hermeticism and the Renaissance, ed. I. Merkel and A. G. Debus, p. 45.
28. Fowden, Egyptian Hermes, p. xv. For example, J. P. Mahé, a professor of Armenian, is one who sees a connection between the philosophical Hermetica and the earlier Egyptian Wisdom literature in Hermès en Haute-Egypte (Quebec 1978-1982); also Eric Iverson, Egyptian and Hermetic Doctrine (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 1984).
29. Fowden, Egyptian Hermes, p. 102.
30. Iamblichus refers to the "way of Hermes" in his response to Porphyry, Mysteriis viii, 4-5, cited in Fowden, Egyptian Hermes, p. 96.
31. “The Discourse on the Eighth and the Ninth,” The Nag Hammadí Library in English, gen. Ed. James M. Robinson (New York: Harper Collins, 1990) p. 326.
32. Corpus Hermeticum vii; i.27; x.8; and xiii.7,8. This and the following references to the C.H. are from Fowden, Egyptian Hermes, chapter four, pp. 105-112.
33. Ibid. C.H. i.31; x.4,15; and Asclepius 41.
34. Ibid. C.H. xiii.
35. Ibid. C.H. x.19.
36. Ibid. C.H. ii.17 and iii.3.
37. See Maria Dzielska, Apollonius of Tyana in Legend and History, trans. Piotr Pienkowski (Rome: “L'Erma” di Bretschneider, 1986) pp. 32-38, 185.
38. Philostratus, The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, 2 vols., trans. F. C. Conybeare (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1912) i.2,3.
39. See Dzielska, Apollonius of Tyana, chapter 1, on problems with Philostratus' reliability as a historian, and arguments that "Damis" is a fictitious figure.
40. Ibid., p. 14.
41. See D. H. Raynor, "Moerangenes and Philostratus: Two Views of Apollonius of Tyana," Classical Quarterly 34 (1984) p. 223.
42. Dzielska, Apollonius of Tyana, p. 86.
43. Ibid., pp. 149-150.
44. Philostratus, Life of Apollonius, iv.44.
45. Ibid. iv.45.
46. Ibid., vol. 2, "The Treatise of Eusebius."
47. Lactantius, Divine Institutes, V, iii-iv.
48. Dzielska, Apollonius of Tyana, pp. 157-158.
49. Cited in Dzielska, Apollonius of Tyana, p. 101.
50. Ibid., pp. 101-102.
51. Ibid., p. 108.
52. Ibid., p. 110.
53. The Letters of Apollonius of Tyana, trans. Robert J. Penella (Leiden 1979) letter no. 44.
54. Dzielska, Apollonius of Tyana, p. 140.
55. Cited in G. R. S. Mead, Apollonius of Tyana: The Philosophical Explorer and Social Reformer of the First Century A.D. (London 1901) pp. 153-154.
56. Letters of Apollonius, no. 54.
57. Ibid., no. 58.
58. J. W. Fück, "The Arabic Literature on Alchemy According to an-Nadím," Ambix (Feb. 1951) p. 93.
59. Paul Kraus, Jábir ibn Hayyán: Contribution à l'Histoire des Idées Scientifiques dans l'Islam, vol. 2 (Paris: Société d'Édition les Belles Lettres, 1986) p. 282.
60. Syed Nomanul Haq, Names, Natures and Things: The Alchemist Jábir ibn Hayyán and his Kitáb al-Ahjár (Book of Stones) Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, vol. 158 (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1994) p. 15.
61. Ibid., chapter 1.
62. See F. E. Peters, Allah's Commonwealth: A History of Islam in the Near East, 600-1100 A.D. (New York: Simon & Shuster, 1973) pp. 273-274. In Islam, there is also a tradition of three different Hermeses. Ibn Abí Usaybi`a records this tradition as he borrows it from the astronomer Abú Ma`shar al-Balkhí: "There were three Hermeses. As for the first Hermes...the Persians call him Hóshang, which means the Just....The Persians say that his grandfather was Kayómarth, that is Adam. The Hebrews say that he is Akhnúkh (Enoch), Idrís in Arabic. Abú Ma`shar said: He was the first man to talk about such things as the motions of the stars....He was the first man to build temples and praise God in them; the first person to study the science of medicine and talk about it....He was the first man to give warning of the Flood, and he foresaw the advent on earth of a great catastrophe coming from the skies by fire and water. He resided in Upper Egypt....As for the second Hermes, he was one of the Babylonians. He lived in the city of the Chaldeans, in Babel. He lived after the Flood....He excelled in medicine and in philosophy and he knew the nature of numbers. Pythagoras, the arithmetician was his pupil. This Hermes revived what was lost of medicine, philosophy and the art of numbers in the Flood, in Babel....As for the third Hermes, he lived in the city of Misr, and he came after the Flood. He is the author of the book about venomous animals. He was a physician and a philosopher, and he knew the nature of deadly medicines and harmful animals....He wrote a beautiful and valuable book about alchemy which is related to many crafts, such as the making of glass, glass objects, clay and the like. He had a disciple, by the name of Asklepios, who lived in Syria" (cited in A. Fodor "The Origins of the Arabic Legends of the Pyramids," Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 23 (1970) pp. 336-337).
63. An interesting study by Birger A. Pearson shows that the Poimandres of Hermes and a Jewish document, 2 Enoch, probably originating from first-century Egypt, have numerous, specific parallels, such that either one is borrowing from the other, or both must derive from a common, earlier source. ("Jewish Elements in Corpus Hermeticum I [Poimandres]" in Studies in Gnosticism and Hellenistic Religions, eds. R. van den Broek and M. J. Vermaseren [Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1981])
64. Quoted in Scott, Hermetica, vol. 4, (Testimonia) p. 255.
65. Quoted in A. E. Affifi, "The Influence of Hermetic Literature on Moslem Thought," Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, vol. 13 (1951) pp. 842-843.
66. Quoted in Scott, Hermetica, vol. 4 (Testimonia) p. 248.
67. Regarding Hermetic writings in Arabic, an-Nadím in his Fihrist (Catalog) lists twenty-two treatises of Hermes, thirteen on alchemy, four on theurgy, and five on astrology. Only a few of these remain intact, such as the Kitáb Qarátís al-hakím, Kitáb al-Habíb, Kitáb at-Tankalúsh, and Kitáb al-Masmúmát Shánáq. For a fuller treatment of Hermetic texts, see Seyyed Hossein Nasr's chapter "Hermes and Hermetic Writings in the Islamic World" in his Islamic Studies (Beirut: Librairie du Liban, 1967) pp. 63-89.
68. Balínús, Sirr al-Khalíqa wa San`at at-Tabí`at (Kitáb al-`Ilal), ed. Ursula Weisser (Aleppo, Syria: University of Aleppo, 1979) p. 100.
69. H. E. Stapleton, G. L. Lewis, and F. Sherwood Taylor, "The Sayings of Hermes Quoted in the Má' al-Waraqí of Ibn Umail," Ambix (April 1949) pp. 69-90.
70. Scott, Hermetica, vol. 4, pp. 280-281.
71. Quoted in Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islamic Studies (Beirut: Librairie du Liban, 1967) p. 69.
72. Dzielska, Apollonius of Tyana, pp. 104-105.
73. Kraus, Jábir ibn Hayyán, pp. 293-294.
74. Ibid., p. 295.
75. Julius Ruska, Tabula Smaragdina: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Hermetischen Literatur (Heidelberg: Carl Winter's Universitätisbuchhandlung, 1926) pp. 72, 79.
76. Kraus, Jábir ibn Hayyán, p. 298, and Encyclopedia of Islam, new edition, vol. 1, p. 995.
77. Bahá'u'lláh, Tablets, pp. 147-148.
78. Balínús, Sirr al-Khalíqa, pp. 2, 51. Bah 'u'll h explains in the Lawh-i-Hikmat that he has not discovered these sayings by perusing books as other men do: "Thou knowest full well that We perused not the books which men possess and We acquired not the learning current amongst them, and yet whenever We desire to quote the sayings of the learned and the wise, presently there will appear before the face of thy Lord in the form of a tablet all that which hath appeared in the world and is revealed in the Holy Books and Scriptures. Thus do We set down in writing that which the eye perceiveth. Verily His knowledge encompasseth the earth and the heavens." (Tablets, p. 149)
79. See Juan Cole, “Problems of Chronology in Bahá'u'lláh's Tablet of Wisdom,” World Order (Spring 1979) pp. 24-39. Also see note 78 above on the manner in which Bahá'u'lláh says he acquired this information.
80. Balínús, Sirr al-Khalíqa, pp. 101-103.
81. Tablets, pp. 140-141.
82. Bahá'u'lláh, The Hidden Words (London: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1975) p. 6.
83. Tablets, p. 142.
84. See Keven Brown, "A Bahá'í Perspective on the Origin of Matter," Journal of Bahá'í Studies, vol. 2, no. 3 (1990) p. 24.
85. Bahá'u'lláh states: "The cause of motion has ever been heat, and the cause of heat is the Word of God," from Persian text in Vahíd Ra'fatí, "Lawh-i-Hikmat: Fá`ilayn va Munfa`ilayn," `Andalíb, vol. 5, no. 19 (1986) p.36.
86. Balínús, Sirr al-Khalíqa, p. 104.
87. Tablets, p. 140.
88. See Keven Brown, “A Bahá'í Perspective,” pp. 15-44, where this thesis is more fully treated.
89. Bahá'u'lláh, Áthár-i Qalam A`lá, vol. 7, p. 113.
90. Qutb al-Dín Shírází, the thirteenth-century commentator of Suhrawardí, explains: “Therefore, it is established that the intent of the sages is that the lords of species (arbáb al-naw`) are not the individualized forms of the images (asnám). Nay, rather the species lord is the model (mithál) of the image (sanam) in the world of intellect, just as the image with all of its accidents is its likeness in the world of sense.” Quoted by Ahmad ibn Harawí, Anwáriyya, ed. Hossein Ziai [Tehran: Amir Kabir, 1358] p. 40)
91. Bahá'u'lláh, Má'idiy-i Ásmání, vol. 4 (Tihran: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 129 B.E.) p. 82.
92. That the four elements were thought of as primary states of matter by the ancient philosophers is evident from Plato's frequent use of the term “kind” or “genus” as a synonym for “element” in the Timaeus 53a – 57d, so that earth includes all solids, water all liquids, and so forth. Baghdadí, one of the Muslim Mutakallimún, also uses the term “genus” (jins) for element. He says: “For example, earth loses density and changes into water, as with salt when it is dissolved, and water in some places freezes and becomes a stone, although it is from the genus of earth.” (Usúlu'l-Dín [Istanbul, 1928] p. 54)
93. Tablets, pp. 141-142.
94. Má'idiy-i-Ásmání, vol. 1, pp. 54-55.
95. See The Arabic Works of Jábir ibn Hayyán, ed. E. J. Holmyard, vol. 1 (Paris: Librairie Orientaliste, 1928) pp. 90, 104.
96. Balínús, Sirr al-Khalíqa, p.7. There is another story in Philostratus (viii, 19-20), where Apollonius enters a cave at the temple of Trophonius in Greece to visit its oracle, declaring that his purpose is "in the interests of philosophy." After seven days, he returns to his companions, carrying a book of philosophy supposedly conformable to the teachings of Pythagoras. Philostratus says that this book, along with the letters of Apollonius, was later entrusted to the care of the emperor Hadrian and kept in his palace at Antium.
97. Ibid., pp. 524-525.
98. The published Bahá'í alchemy texts, or texts which mention alchemy, may be found in the following sources: (1) Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, pp. 197-198, 200; (2) Kitáb-i Íqán, pp. 157, 186-190; (3) Má'idiy-i-Ásmání, vol. 1, pp. 19-20, 24-57; vol. 3, p. 15; vol. 4, pp. 77-85; (4) Amr va Khalq, vol. 3, pp. 350-358; and (5) Asráru'l-Áthár (letter alif) pp. 207-208. In addition to these published sources, several of which contain textual errors and omissions, a number of unpublished Bahá'í alchemy texts are held at the International Bahá'í Archives.
99. Má'idiy-i-Ásmání, vol. 1, p. 30.
100. From an unpublished Tablet of Bahá'u'lláh in the Bahá'í International Archives.
101. From two unpublished Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh in the Bahá'í International Archives.
102. Ibid. Seyyed Hossein Nasr explains what these secret sciences are in Chapter 9 of his Islamic Science: An Illustrated Study (World of Islam Festival Publishing Co., 1976): "Besides the 'open' and 'accessible' sciences...the Islamic sciences include a category called the hidden (khafiyyah) or occult (gharíbah) sciences, which have always remained 'hidden', both in the content of their teachings and in the manner of gaining accessibility to them, because of their very nature....Although dozens in number, the occult sciences were classified in the famous compendium of Husayn `Alí Wá'iz al-Káshifí into the five sciences of kímiyá' (alchemy), límiyá' (magic), hímiyá' (the subjugating of souls), símiyá' (producing visions) and rímiyá' (jugglery and tricks). The first letter of the five words together form the words kulluhu sirr, which means, 'they are all secret'....The texts on the occult sciences contain numerous other branches. Probably the most popular of the occult sciences was jafr, dealing with the numerical value of the letters of the Arabic alphabet and said to have been first cultivated by `Alí ibn Abí Tálib. It is used to this day for purposes ranging from interpreting the opening letters of the verses of the Holy Qur'án to casting evil spells. Almost as widespread is raml, or geomancy, which is said to have come down from the Prophet Daniel. Although it originally made use of pebbles of sand, special instruments were later devised with various squares and dots from which future events are prognosticated."
103. Bahá'u'lláh in Amr va Khalq, vol. 3 (Tihran: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 122 B.E.) p. 355.
104. Ibid., p. 353.
105. From an unpublished Tablet of Bahá'u'lláh in the Bahá'í International Archives.
106. An example of a Bahá'í text that emphasizes the importance of free will is the following: “All that which ye potentially possess can, however, be manifested only as a result of your own volition. Your own acts testify to this truth….Men, however, have wittingly broken His law. Is such a behavior to be attributed to God, or to their proper selves? Be fair in your judgment. Every good thing is of God, and every evil thing is from yourselves.” (Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh [Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1980] p. 149)
107. `Abdu'l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of `Abdu'l-Bahá (Haifa: Bahá'í World Centre, 1978), p. 198.
108. On the question of theodicy in Islam, see E. L. Ormsby, Theodicy in Islamic Thought (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).
109. `Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 249.
110. Corpus Hermeticum XII(i)7 in Scott, Hermetica.
111. Zosimos quoted in Fowden, Egyptian Hermes, p. 123.
112. Bahá'u'lláh, Tablets, p. 148.
113. `Abdu'l-Bahá, Selection from the Writings, p. 55. See also `Abdu'l-Bahá, The Secret of Divine Civilization (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1970) p. 77.
114. From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, 15 February 1947, published in Unfolding Destiny (London: British Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1981) p. 445. The Bahá'í Faith also accepts some events as factually true, such as the virgin birth of Jesus by means of the Spirit of God, even though they go against the laws of nature. The principle of the harmony between science and religion is, once again, not compromised, according to Bahá'ís, because God is a higher principle than the laws of nature. As “the Father of the Universe, [God] can, in His wisdom and omnipotence, bring about any change, no matter how temporary, in the operation of the laws which He himself created.” (Letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, 27 February 1938, published in Bahá'í References to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, comp. James Heggie [Oxford: George Ronald, 1986] p. 143)
115. In a tablet written to Mrs. Ethel Rosenberg in 1906, `Abdu'l-Bahá indicates that Bahá'u'lláh's accounts of the philosophers in the Lawh-i Hikmat are to be taken as factually correct, for he states: “How many historical questions were deemed settled in the eighteenth century, and in the nineteenth century the opposite was proved true. Hence, the sayings of the historians and the accounts prior to Alexander the Great, even the dates of the lives of important persons, cannot be relied upon. Be not surprised, therefore, at the difference between the contents of the Tablet of Wisdom and the texts of the historians. It is necessary to examine carefully the great disparities existing among the various historians and historical accounts, because the historians of the East and the historians of the West differ greatly. The Tablet of Wisdom was written in accordance with some of the histories of the East….The firm basis of reality is the Divine Universal Manifestation of God. After He has established the truth, whatever He says is correct.” (Má'idiy-i-Ásmání, vol. 2, pp. 65, 67)
The second perspective given in the conclusion to this paper, namely that the historical accuracy of the accounts revealed by Bahá'u'lláh is tangential to his primary purpose, should not be considered contradictory to the view given here by `Abdu'l-Bahá. The second perspective holds that whether the historical accounts are accurate or not is insignificant compared to Bahá'u'lláh's purpose in revealing them.
116. Juan Cole, “Problems of Chronology in Bahá'u'lláh's Tablet of Wisdom,” World Order, vol. 13, no. 3 (Spring 1979) pp. 38, 39.
117. Letter of 3 November 1987 written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual.
118. `Abdu'l-Bahá, Min Makátíb-i-`Abdu'l-Bahá, vol. 1 (Rio de Janeiro: Editora Bahá'í Brasil, 1982) p. 53.
119. Quoted in a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice dated 3 November 1987.
120. Bahá'u'lláh, Tablets, pp. 144-145, 149-150.
121. From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, quoted by Juan Cole in “Problems of Chronology,” p. 37n.