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The Religious Influence of Persia:
A Paper Read before the Persia Society

by E. G. Browne

pages 57-61, 70-72, out of 16 total pages
London: Persia Society, 1914-05-20

1. Text

[page 57]

Two years ago, in the course of a paper on Persian Literature, which I had the honour of reading before this Society [see], I made an observation which seemed to me almost a platitude but which caused apparently, some amusement and surprise amongst my audience, and was, I think the only point in the lecture which was noticed in almost all the reports in the Press. I said that in Persia, if not in other countries, the best poetry was produced in he most troubled times, while eras of comparative prosperity and peace were relatively poor in poetical talent. Encouraged by the success of this generalisation, I will venture on another similar one in connection with the large and interesting topic which Ia am to discuss to-day, and that is, that religious emotion and metaphysical speculation are generally most active when political and social pessimism are most prevalent. Perhaps this is only true of people like the Persians, who have a strong religious bent; if it were universally true we ought to expect with some confidence a widely spread religious revival in this country at no distant date, for few of us, I imagine, can recall a period of political pessimism comparable to that through which we are now passing, though this is a topic on which it is not

[page 58]

permissible for me to enlarge here. Exception must also be made of some at least of the great national religions of ancient times, such as those of the old Greeks, Indians, Jews, and Persians, and perhaps of primitive Islam, where a certain note of triumph, or a certain joie de vivre is discernible. Buddhism, on the other hand, is wholly pessimistic in its outlook on life both here and hereafter, seeing no escape from suffering save in the annihilation or quasi annihilation of Nirvana; while, so far as this world is concerned, primitive Christianity can hardly be regarded as optimistic, still less the remarkable and once widely diffuse Manichaean faith which arose first in Persia in the third century of our era, and of which I shall more to say presently. It is noteworthy also that the form of Islam which always had its chief stronghold in Persia, and ultimately prevailed there, is the one which emphasizes its more tragic side, to wit, the sufferings of the Prophets and Imams and more particularly the tragic fate of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and third of the twelve Imams, al Husayn, in whose memory the 'Ashuru, or tenth day of the month of Muharram, is celebrated every year in so remarkable a manner wherever a Persian community is to be found.

When I visited Persia twenty six years ago nothing impressed me more than the complete absorption of all thinking men in religious and philosophical speculation, and their entire detachment from all political and social questions; and I came to the conclusion that to these old nations, which have suffered so much and passed through so many vicissitudes, the saying of the pessimistic Arabian poet Abu'l 'Ala al-Ma'arri, that the history of mankind is like a poem in which the words change but the rhyme always recurs, appears as a self-evident and incontestable truth. It was for this reason chiefly that I was at first so little disposed to attach much importance to the Revolution, or Constitutional Movement, which began at the end of 1905, and with the heroic course and tragic end of which at the end of 1911 you are all familiar. It needed not only the emphatic and reiterated testimony

[page 59]

of friends who witnessed these phenomena on the spot, and were competent to appreciate and interpret them, but personal acquaintance with and experience of, the leading dramatis personae and the literature which enshrined their ideas and recorded their deeds to convince me that, whatever the result may be, and however the movement may end, in the six years defined above will ever remain a unique and momentous epoch in the history of Persia, in which for the first and possibly for the last time in the that history, hope was transferred from the spiritual to the material plane, and an advance towards happiness in this world seemed not only worth striving for but attainable. This new spirit and these new hopes are wonderfully reflected not only in the ephemeral literature but in the poetry of this period which ended prematurely in the destruction of these new born legitimate hopes, and the re-enthronement of Despair in the place where for too brief a period Hope had held precarious sway. The bruised reed was broken and the smoking flax was quenched.

Pessimism, then, has been one of the chief influences in the evolution of most of the religions and philosophies of Persia, and it is, I think, significant that hardly anywhere has so much thought been devoted to the problem of the nature and origin of Evil in the universe. The old dilemma that the Creator, if he could have prevented the appearance of Evil in the universe, and did not do so, cannot be All-Good, while, if He wished to prevent it, but could not, He cannot be All-Powerful, has troubled the Persian more than it troubles the European mind, and almost every possible solution has been attempted by one or other school of religious or philosophical thought. I will mention four of the chief theories associated with three of the great religions and one of the most notable religious philosophies which has arisen or prevailed in Persia. Of these four theories the two older ones depend on a dualistic and the two later on a monistic or unitarian theory of the universe. Let us consider first the two dualistic theories, which, though superficially similar, differ vitally in their essence. These two theories (p.60) are the Zoroastrian and the Manichæan, and they agree in recognizing two independent and hostile Powers in the universe, but differ in their views as to the relative strength and activity of those Powers, and as for the ultimate result of the struggle.

Almost everyone is familiar with the late Professor Max Muller's division of the great religions of the world into two classes — those intended for one particular nation or race, such as Hinduism, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism, and those — the "missionary religions" which claimed to be universal in their scope and appeal, such as Buddhism; Christianity, and Islam. To the latter class we must add two other religions which arose in Persia, one in he third century after Christ and the other within the memory of people still living, to wit, Manichæanism and Babism with its later development Bahá'ísm, of all modern religions one of the most actively propagandist.

The old national religions were not propagandist, and aimed at meeting the spiritual needs of one particular race, which regarded itself as a "Chosen People" Broadly speaking, and with certain well defined reservations, no one who is not so born can become a Hindu, a Jew, or a Zoroastrian, and the chief concern of the Brahmin, the Rabbi, and the Dastur or Mubad is to avoid, repel, or repress the Mlechch, the Gentile, and the "Worshipper of the Daevas" respectively. In the opening chapter of the Vendidad which forms part of the sacred book of the Zoroastrians known as the Avesta, an account is given of the creation, not of the world, but of the Iranian or Persian lands. Sixteen "good lands and countries", all of which are named and most of which can be identified in Northern and North-Eastern Persia, were successively created by Ahura Mazda or Ormazd, the Good Spirit; besides other "lands and countries beautiful and deep, desirable and bright and thriving"; but as each good land is created, the Evil Spirit, Angra Mainyu or Ahriman, "who is all death," creates as a counterpoise some evil thing, such as winter, witchcraft, poisonous flies, sinful desires, pride, unbelief, and the like. Thus the whole universe, according

[page 60]

to the Zoroastrian conception was divided, if I may so express it, by a vertical line bisecting both the spiritual and the material worlds into two antagonistic realms, the one good; the other evil. At the apex of the former stood Ahura Mazda; the Amshaspands or archangels, the Firishtagan or angels, the prophets, teachers, and followers oft he Good Religion" (Rihdin), the "beautiful, desirable, bright and thriving) provinces of Persia and the animals useful to mankind, such as the cow, the sheep, and the dog, all these together constituting the Good Creation. At he apex of the Evil Creation, on the other hand stood Angra Mainyu or Ahriman, the Daevas or fiends, Drujes or lying spirits, the Yatus or witches and warlocks, the "worshippers of the Daevas" or unbelievers, and the khrafstars, or noxious animals. These two worlds were constantly at war with varying results, all along the line. The advent of spring, the birth of a believing child, a good harvest, the destruction of "worshippers of the Daevas" or of noxious animals (khrafstars) — all these were, in their different degrees, triumphs oft he hosts of Ormazd over those of Ahriman; while; on the other hand, the advent of winter; with what the Pahlavi books all the "cold stinking wind out of the North," the death of a believer, dearth and famine, and the multiplication of vermin were all victories of Ahriman over Ormazd. In spite of its dualism; however, the Zoroastrian religion did not conduce to a passive pessimism, and the humblest believer bore his part in the great struggle, were it only in the killing of a snake, the extirpation of a wasp's nest, or the crushing of a slug or a cockroach. Strange conclusions logically followed from this primary concept, such, for example, as the idea that the corpse of a believer was more impure than that of an unbeliever, and that its impurity was greatest immediately after death and diminished with the advance of decomposition, because the triumph of the Powers of Evil is proportionate to the injury they inflict on the Subjects of the Good World and is greatest at the moment of their victory. Amongst other salient points of the Zoroastrian faith are the beliefs...

[page 70]

... All-Beautiful and All-Good by declaring Evil to be a mere negation and not a real entity at all, but simply an inevitable condition or incident of Creation or

I have taken one out of many points of doctrine out of four of the many religious and philosophical systems which have prevailed or do prevail in Persia, and I have indicated very briefly the wide influence which these four systems have exercised in the world; but one lecture would not suffice for the full discussion of any one of these four topics, viz. the influence of Zoroastrianism on Judaism and Muhammadanism; the influence of Manichæanism on Christianity and Muhammadanism, the Muhammadan theology and philosophy, or the Sufi mysticism, with the sources whence it arose, the influence which it exercised, and the developments to which it gave birth.
The Persians and other Muhammadans constantly speak of the "seventy-two" sects of Islam, and the actual rather exceeds rather than falls short of this number. When one comes to study them in detail, it is surprising to find how large a proportion of them were founded by Persians or influenced by Persian thought. Many of these sects and their founders, even some like the Khurram-dinan and their prophet Babak, who made a great stir in their own day and were not suppressed without much bloodshed, are now almost forgotten. Others though of less note in their own time, are remembered through some accidental circumstance which caught the imagination, as, for instance; al-Muqanna, called by the Persians "`the Moon-Maker" (Mah-sazanda), and immortalised in this country by Thomas Moore as "the Veiled Prophet of Khurasan. Earlier than these in the days of the Sasannian kings arose the communist Mazdak who converted King Qubad to his doctrines and was finally destroyed, together with many of his followers by Nushirwan, the son and successor of Qubad, called "the Just". One of the most romantic chapters in the history of religion was again afforded by the history of the Isma'ili Sect, with its esoteric doctrines, its secret organisation, its degrees of initiation

[page 71]

and its elaborately developed system of propaganda. Of this also the actual founder was a Persian, though the activities of the sect extended from Tunis to Chitral and were greatest in North Africa and Egypt and under the Isma'ili anti-caliphs of the Fatimid Dynasty, enjoyed until the time of Saladin a period of unexampled prosperity, of which the Persian poet and traveller Nasir i-Khusraw, himself a notable adherent of the sect, has left us a vivid contemporary narrative. Out of the Isma'ilis in turn developed many sects, such as the celebrated Assassins of Syria and Persia with their modern representatives the Mullas and Khwajas; the Druzes, the Nusayris, and others which either exist at the present day or have left an indelible imprint on the pages of history. All these and many others I must pass over this afternoon for lack of time.

I must however refer briefly to the latest Persian religion not yet seventy years old, which already sends its missionaries eastwards as far as China and westwards as far as San Francisco; I mean Babism and its later and now almost more famous development Bahá'ísm whose living representative, Abbas Effendi, better known as `Abdu'l-Bahá, visited London a year or two ago and preached in the City Temple as well as in Edinburgh and other places. Already this new faith counts many adherents in America and some in England, France, and other European countries, while in Persia its numbers probably exceed by a good deal Lord Curzon's estimate of half a million. Time does not permit me to discuss its dramatic history, or the earlier part of which the Comte de Gobineau has given so graphic an account in his Religions et Philosophies dans l'Asie Central or its doctrines, which have undergone so strange an evolution; but it must be noted that nothing has so greatly conduced to its prestige as the heroic devotion of its many martyrs, which has aroused the admiration even of missionaries like the Reverend Napier Malcolm, who had little liking or sympathy for the doctrines for which these martyrs were so ready to lay down their lives. At least 2500 years have elapsed since

[page 72]

Zoroaster preached "the Good Religion," and still Persia may reckon religious ideas amongst her chief exports, not only to Asia and the East, but to a remote West of which Zoroaster never dreamed.

Some time ago it was my privilege to hear Mr. G. Bernard Shaw hold forth on Religion at Cambridge. He was very modern, very sceptical, and very European and in the course of his lecture he declared that we should no longer be contented to clothe ourselves in the discarded rags of Oriental creeds. He then proceeded to sketch in broad outline the brand new Western religion which should take the place of these rags and I was surprised and somewhat amused to find that he had merely restated in somewhat modern terms what is at once the most recent and one of the most ancient Persian heresies; and that his system in its essence merely reiterated in a more explicit form the doctrine of Mirza Husayn `Ali, the Persian, better known as Bahá'u'lláh. Whatever may be the political future of Persia, I reflected it does not seem probable that, so long as she anticipates the speculations of advanced European thought, she will cease to be what she has so long continued to be, the source and inspiration of the religious and philosophical ideas of the world. ...

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