"Catastrophe, Armageddon and Millennium: Some Aspects of the Bábí-Bahá'í Exegesis of Apocalyptic Symbolism"
Author: Stephen Lambden
Publisher: Bahá'í Studies Review 9 (1999/2000), pp. 81-99
Commentary by: William Collins
Millennialism is one of the most vibrant topics in the worlds of sociological, political, historical and religious studies today. This interest was in part fuelled by the millennium fever as the year 2000 approached. It also owes its popularity to a growing body of scholarship from the past four decades that has unearthed millennialism's links to revolution and violence, to the establishment and growth of religions, and to social change. As Stephen Lambden explains in his article, "millennium" means a period of one thousand years, and alludes specifically to the period mentioned in the biblical Book of Revelation (the Apocalypse) during which the returned Jesus Christ is expected to reign. Millennialism, however, has taken on a generic sociological meaning that goes beyond Christianity. It has been defined as imminent collective salvation accomplished according to a divine plan, or the expectation of a future time free from cares, imperfection and suffering. Millennialism is the rubric frequently used to describe any movement that has as its goal the replacement of the current defective order with a perfect one, either by immediate overthrow or long-term eventual replacement.
Stephen Lambden's analysis is a perceptive look at the use of catastrophic symbolism by the world's religions (e.g. Armageddon the final battle between good and evil), and the Bahá'í exegesis of these symbols. His conclusions are: (1) Bahá'í interpretations of end-time catastrophe are best viewed in their evolving historical contexts; (2) Bábí and Bahá'í texts anticipate numerous catastrophes, some of which have been outwardly realized and some of which have been metaphorically interpreted; (3) the apocalyptic upheaval of the end times has largely been completed in the 20th century. Lambden's conclusions must be seen in the context of a forceful apocalyptic sub-theme in official and unofficial Bahá'í discourse during the past seven decades. Bahá'u'lláh's writings themselves contain passages of extraordinary power in this regard:
O ye peoples of the world! Know, verily, that an unforeseen calamity is following you, and that grievous retribution awaiteth you. Think not the deeds ye have committed have been blotted from My sight. By My beauty! All your doings hath My Pen graven with open characters upon tablets of chrysolite.
We have fixed a time for you, O peoples. If ye fail, at the appointed hour, to turn towards God, He, verily, will lay violent hold on you, and will cause grievous afflictions to assail you from every direction. How severe, indeed, is the chastisement with which your Lord will then chastise you!
The world is in travail, and its agitation waxeth day by day. Its face is turned towards waywardness and unbelief. Such shall be its plight, that to disclose it now would not be meet and seemly. Its perversity will long continue. And when the appointed hour is come, there shall suddenly appear that which shall cause the limbs of mankind to quake. Then, and only then, will the Divine Standard be unfurled, and the Nightingale of Paradise warble its melody.
Shoghi Effendi frequently quoted these passages from the 1930s to the 1950s, and to warn of the dire consequences of humanity's continued waywardness and refusal to accept Bahá'u'lláh. These authoritative statements were reinforced by Shoghi Effendi's private conversations with pilgrims, during which he reportedly emphasized, in even more dire and specific language, the terrible results of human stubbornness.
The warnings uttered by Shoghi Effendi about the actual and potential calamitous events associated with warfare and human-created destruction engendered a climate in which many Bahá'ís made major life decisions, especially in favour of pioneering to other countries or to more rural areas, in order to escape the coming tribulations. Shoghi Effendi's warnings had the positive effect of galvanising a portion of the Bahá'ís to action, and maintaining group cohesion in the face of the onslaught of the non-Bahá'í world. A more negative impact was that it also encouraged a certain paralysis and guilt. A calamity of such devastating power would very likely mean significant destruction of life, including probably one's own and those of one's family. If the calamity was to be of such power that it would bring humanity to recognition of Bahá'u'lláh, why risk having a family, earning a livelihood, and getting an education, let alone attempting to teach the Faith to large numbers of uninterested people? Shoghi Effendi was an astute observer of the world scene, and had accurately seen the shadows of World War II descending upon the world. He likewise foresaw the apocalyptic possibilities of a bipolar world in which western capitalism led by the United States, and materialistic communism led by the Soviet Union, could destroy civilization. Shoghi Effendi referred to the most disturbing periods of the 20th century both in terms of specificity (e.g. he initially identified World War II as the convulsion foretold by Bahá'u'lláh), and in general terms as a series of upheavals reflecting the process of disintegration of a bankrupt world order.
In the aftermath of the collapse of communism, the re-drawing of political boundaries, and a new international power distribution, there is a tempting desire to go in the other direction by placing all references to catastrophe in a framework that is primarily spiritually interpreted or rendered as a sociological description of a long period of upheaval. As Lambden demonstrates, there is much evidence in the writings of the Bahá'í central figures to indicate that they spiritualised the apocalyptic symbols of past religions, and also foretold a period of disintegration that would be filled with numerous upheavals, calamities, catastrophes and convulsions, primarily man-made.
This raises some issues, however. Lambden characterises millennialism in his article using categorisations coloured by their initial Christian meanings:
Premillennialism: Jesus Christ's return, accompanied by various apocalyptic signs, occurs before the general resurrection and judgment; God remakes the world, and the thousand-year reign begins.
Postmillennialism: the "kingdom of God" being built by Christians results in a peaceful order for a thousand years, after which Jesus Christ returns.
These are being supplemented by other terminology that is more generically descriptive. Two new terms, which are increasingly being used, have been coined by Catherine Wessinger of Loyola University in New Orleans:
Catastrophic millennialism: pessimistic view of humanity, society and history; evil is rampant; to eliminate evil and achieve collective salvation on earth, the world must be destroyed and made new by God; the catastrophic destruction is imminent.
Progressive millennialism: optimistic view of humanity, society and history; progress is possible; collective salvation will be achieved by humans working in harmony with a divine plan.
If we look at Lambden's characterisation of the Bahá'í millennium, he states that it is of the premillennial variety, since the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh the "Christs" of this era come at the beginning of the thousand years of the Bahá'í dispensation. Per the "premillennialist" definition of messianic appearance before the millennium, the Bahá'í Faith is technically premillennial. Operationally, however, the Bahá'í Faith is postmillennial because Bahá'ís have the task of building the kingdom; the millennium does not immediately cover all the world through divine fiat. Consider an alternative perspective. Think of millennialism as a catastrophic-progressive continuum, with the history of each religion moving along that continuum emphasizing a variable mix of catastrophic and progressive elements over time.
Most of the Bábís initially appear to have believed in an imminent overturning of the existing order in Iran. Indeed, the more severe laws of the Bayán certainly have this implication. By definition, the Báb's claims were a threat to church and state. The Mahdi, after all, was the one in whose name both the clergy and the rulers of Persia were operating. Shoghi Effendi even termed Babism a religious and social revolution. It is therefore more congruent to think of the Bábí phase as primarily catastrophic, and indeed the Bábís and possibly Iran itself experienced the movement as just that. Bahá'u'lláh promulgated a longer-term divine plan that would require centuries of work and development, long after his earthly life was ended. This is a progressive millennial stance. However, full-fledged religious traditions are more nuanced and more diverse than such simplistic categorisations allow. Returning to Shoghi Effendi's interpretations, even in his outline of a long-term divine plan that was intended gradually to improve the life of humankind, he painted a distressingly dark picture of the near-term future of a human race unwilling to turn to Bahá'u'lláh for its cure. If we look at places where there is persecution of Bahá'ís, or countries where the Faith is difficult to establish, or periods when the international horizon appears dark, elements of catastrophism can hold sway in the outlook of individual Bahá'ís. David Piff has documented the influence of catastrophism in the Bahá'í community as expressed in its unofficial lore. There are thus two general lines of discourse in the Bahá'í community: one that takes the statements made by Bahá'u'lláh, as amplified and interpreted by Shoghi Effendi, to refer to one or more cataclysmic events of such intensity as to give humanity a wake-up call; and a second which views this as a gradual process of disintegration, a series of disasters and setbacks, but not a single event of such a world-shaking nature.
To ask whether either one of these is the "correct" way of understanding the references in the Bahá'í texts misses the dynamic of the millennial moment and the millennial enterprise. It is possible for reasonable people to come to either conclusion. Certainly it is difficult to escape the more catastrophic possibilities suggested by Bahá'u'lláh's definiteness, even while he leaves the nature and time of the event unspecified: "the appointed hour," "that which shall cause the limbs of mankind to quake," and "an unforeseen calamity" (not simply "unforeseen calamities"). Yet the processes, program and general long-term optimism of the Bahá'í vision would lead to the conclusion that progressivism is the millennialism of choice for Bahá'ís. This is particularly evident in the increasing emphasis on "process" strongly evoked in recent statements issued by various organs of the Bahá'í International Community.
In evolutionary science there is a notion of "punctuated equilibrium." This postulates long periods of stability or slow progress, periodically interrupted by sudden catastrophic events from which great bursts of natural creativity and evolution occur. I propose that the millennialist impulse in the Bahá'í Faith is "punctuated progressive millennialism," that is, a generally positive progressive outlook that retains strong elements of concern and expectation of one or several individual world-shaking events that will destroy reactionary forces and give impetus to progressive ones. Bábí-Bahá'í history already demonstrates this. The Bábí period was catastrophic in its immediate expectations of an overthrow of the corrupt contemporary order. It was followed by Bahá'u'lláh's introduction of a progressive plan for building the kingdom of God. The 20th century was a period of the kingdom unfolding very slowly, but filled with tremendously shocking events in the world, including wars in which tens of millions of people perished. Since the fall of communism to the close of the 20th century, a certain anxious optimism reigns in the Bahá'í community.
What do the Bahá'í sacred texts themselves portend? Among American Bahá'ís from the mid-1930s through the early 1980s there was considerable expectation that by the end of the 20th century the Lesser Peace would be established. The Lesser Peace is a covenantal compact among states to bring about the cessation of war, and (possibly) the establishment of the rudiments of world federation. Some Bahá'ís developed very different positions with regard to the establishment of the Lesser Peace. Believers who leaned toward the notion of a single calamity were quick to hitch the timing of that event to the end of the 20th century and the establishment of a definitive and clearly-visible Lesser Peace. Those who leaned toward progressivism have been inclined to consider the 20th century to have exhibited movement toward the foundations of the Lesser Peace combined with a decades-long series of calamitous events. It appears that there were erroneous assumptions in both views that blinded the viewers to the following points: (1) the Lesser Peace as defined in the Bahá'í writings is not yet fully and visibly established as a political pact of states; (2) `Abdu'l-Bahá's reference to the unity of nations being established in the 20th century was not a promise or prophecy of the clearly visible, fully-established Lesser Peace; (3) the Bahá'í writings do not appear specifically to indicate that "the calamity" must occur before the Lesser Peace; (4) nowhere in the Bahá'í texts is there an indication that the period of the Lesser Peace will be free of calamity.
Most of these very points have recently made by the Universal House of Justice. It is interesting that the Universal House of Justice waited until now to make a clear elucidation of this subject. Because human beings tend to think of prophecy in terms of things that they already know have been fulfilled, they may think that knowing something to be a prophecy enables them to predict the future. A Bahá'í author has recently tackled this problem:
Certainly it would seem that predicting the future through prophecy is not only a reasonable thing to do, but even a duty of the faithful, so that they might prepare themselves for the coming of their Lord. And those whose vision of the Second Coming is based upon the words of the Bible should be assured that their vision is correct except for one unavoidable fact: there is no evidence to support the commonly held assumption that the meaning of prophecies can be understood before they have been fulfilled. Quite the contrary, the evidence of the Bible overwhelmingly demonstrates that until they are fulfilled, prophecies are ignored, misunderstood, and, in many cases, present a barrier between the seeker and his goal. Having no foreknowledge of the meaning of a prophecy, one cannot, therefore, use it to predict the future. It must first be fulfilled for its meaning to be revealed.
Such a principle can be applied to the notion that `Abdu'l-Bahá's reference to the "unity of nations" being established in the 20th century must mean that the Lesser Peace would be established and that the "calamity" or "catastrophe" would occur first. While this belief might have been one way that history could have unfolded, only in hindsight can any understanding of `Abdu'l-Bahá's statement be gained. The Universal House of Justice makes clear that the differentiation between "unity of nations" and "Lesser Peace" was there all along, even in the interpretations of Shoghi Effendi, in which he explicitly stated that "the Lesser Peace... will come" but its "exact dates we do not know."
It is almost certain that there will be a centuries-long period when the simultaneous processes of disintegration and integration are in operation. Is there any assurance that there will or will not be a single earth-shaking calamity that will revolutionize the fortunes of the Bahá'í community? Precisely because we cannot see the future on this point, the Bahá'í Faith will almost certainly remain a religion with strongly manifested progressive millennialism and a periodic energetic infusion of the catastrophic type. Progressive millennialism is at the fore, but the catastrophic undercurrent will remain, at least so long as humanity remains unwilling to respond to the Bahá'í Faith in significant numbers. It will also remain until, in hindsight, Bahá'ís have more authoritative definition of the events or processes that fulfil Bahá'u'lláh's statements.
Many, though not all, religions follow an evolutionary path involving changing foci from catastrophic to progressive millennialism. Scholars find many nuances to this very broad schema, but it has a certain appeal and applicability to many religious movements, including the Bahá'í Faith. A new creative impulse enters the world, usually through a messianic figure, and makes rapid headway among portions of a population. This impulse, both because of its immediate demand for transformation of the social order, and its perceived or direct assault on social stability and entrenched structures, is viewed as a threat by the established forces of orthodoxy and authority. The followers of the new movement experience opposition. The established forces of orthodoxy and authority feel threatened. The millennialists, the authorities, or both, may become militant. The state and/or church launch an assault on the new movement, usually by force of arms, by killing the leader, or both. The assault either destroys the movement or weakens it. If the religion survives, it may find a new leader and/or the community of believers may become aware of a long-term divine plan to attain the movement's goals and the reformation of society. The movement then leaves the revolutionary catastrophic phase to become a progressive millennial movement, so long as it retains that long-term divine plan. Millennialism is long-lived, can become dangerous, and is historically one of the most creative social impulses over the long term. It seeks to be ready for any eventuality, to be capable of surviving whatever God, universe, or human society, can throw at it. The Bábí-Bahá'í Faith can be seen as one type in this model, having developed a strong progressive millennialism built on several catastrophic pillars. For this reason, wisdom dictates that we not over-interpret or selectively interpret the religion's texts to make it fall completely within either catastrophic or progressive millennialism.
Another useful term that may be used to describe some portions of the Bahá'í millennialist impulse is "managed millennialism," coined by Jacqueline Stone. Managed millennialism is a catastrophic millennialism that has lost a sense of the imminence of the catastrophe. Though still officially catastrophic, the emphasis on the catastrophe has diminished. Such a movement might or might not make the shift to progressive millennialism. The Bahá'í Faith clearly exhibits a strong progressive orientation, possesses official directives that minimize the focus on the "catastrophe" or "calamity," and espouses principles that eschew the use of violence to end the old order. It also has authoritative texts that refer to one or more catastrophic events, which can become the focus of concern for a portion of the Bahá'í community under some circumstances. I would offer "punctuated progressive millennialism" and "managed millennialism" as potentially useful descriptors for the Bahá'í case.
There remain other textual questions relating to the expression of catastrophism in the Bahá'í Faith. To what extent does Shoghi Effendi's use of different terms catastrophe, calamity, convulsion, upheaval imply different or similar types of events? Do these terms, as Shoghi Effendi translated them, refer to distinct concepts from Bahá'u'lláh's Arabic and Persian writings? Is the "convulsion" promised by Bahá'u'lláh the same as the "calamity"? A study of the usage of catastrophic terminology in the original sacred texts and in Shoghi Effendi's writings could prove enlightening.
The Bahá'í millennial kingdom measured, not from 1844 as Stephen Lambden indicated, but from Bahá'u'lláh's October 1852 intimation of His mission while he was imprisoned in the Síyáh-Chál in Tehran is envisioned as a stable, peaceful and prosperous civilization operating under divine principles, raised by the long-term efforts of believers. Its full establishment will require centuries of difficult work and the continuing operation of those disintegrative and integrative forces of which Shoghi Effendi frequently wrote. Among those forces may yet be an "appointed hour," an "unforeseen calamity," of sufficient magnitude for us to say that it was what Bahá'u'lláh meant in his writings. It may also be that the worst is over, although such a sentiment may be overly optimistic at this stage, given the world's seemingly intractable problems and the predictions of future large-scale opposition to the Bahá'í Faith.
It should not be imagined that the processes now moving in the world will be free from challenge or difficulty. There may well be set-backs, and conflicts may erupt periodically, as humanity proceeds towards the emergence and consolidation of the Lesser Peace, giving rise in due course to the establishment of the Most Great Peace.
What we can know for certain is that the Bahá'í community must deal with the world as it is and as it will be, whether the planet is progressing, undergoing catastrophe, or both at the same time. That is the way it has always been.
- For other recent treatments of the millennialist impulse in the Bahá'í Faith, see the following by William P. Collins: "Bahá'í Faith," Encyclopedia of Millennialism and Millennial Movements (New York; London: Routledge, 2000) 42-46; "Millennialism, the Millerites, and Historicism," World Order 30.1 (1998): 9-26; "Bahá'í Interpretation of Biblical Time Prophecy," World Order 30.2 (1998/1999): 9-29; "The Millerites and Time Prophecy: Their Function as Millennial Themes in the American Bahá'í Community," unpublished M.S.Sc. Thesis, Syracuse University, 1995; and Moojan Momen, "Millennial Dreams and Apocalyptic Nightmares," forthcoming in the proceedings of the First International Conference on Modern Religions and Religious Movements in Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Bábí and Bahá'í Faiths (held at Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 17-20 December 2000).
- Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1978) section CIV.
- Ibid., section CVIII.
- Ibid., section LXI.
- David Piff, Bahá'í Lore (Oxford: George Ronald, 2000) 122-123. See Watson's review of Piff in this volume, page 161.
- "Pioneers" are Bahá'ís who move to another locality or to another country with the express purpose of promoting the Bahá'í Faith.
- A useful analysis of the influence of this type of apocalyptic warning is Frank L. Borchardt, Doomsday Speculation as a Strategy of Persuasion (Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1990) (Studies in Comparative Religion; v.4).
- For instance, in The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh: Selected Letters (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1991), which were written in the early to mid-1930s; see 46, 189, 193.
- Shoghi Effendi, Messages to America, 1932-1946 (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Committee, 1947) 42-43, 45-46, 48, 53-54.
- Catherine Wessinger, "Millennialism with and without the Mayhem," in Millennium, Messiahs, and Mayhem: Contemporary Apocalyptic Movements, edited by Thomas Robbins and Susan J. Palmer (New York; London: Routledge, 1997) 47-59; Catherine Wessinger, How the Millennium Comes Violently: From Jonestown to Heaven's Gate (New York: Seven Bridges Press, 2000); Catherine Wessinger, ed., Millennialism, Persecution and Violence: Historical Cases (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2000); entries in Encyclopedia of Millennialism and Millennial Movements; Robert H. Stockman, "Millennialism in the Bahá'í Faith: Progressive and Catastrophic Themes," paper delivered at the 12th Irfan Colloquium on Christianity and the Bahá'í Faith, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK, Dec. 6-8, 1996. The Wessinger terminology is frequently used among scholars of New Religious Movements in current conference papers. A further work that makes use of these terms is: Daniel Wojcik, The End of the World As We Know It: Faith, Fatalism, and Apocalypse in America (New York: New York University Press, 1997).
- "The severe laws and injunctions revealed by the Báb can be properly appreciated and understood only when interpreted in the light of His own statements regarding the nature, purpose and character of His own Dispensation. As these statements clearly reveal, the Bábí Dispensation was essentially in the nature of a religious and indeed social revolution, and its duration had therefore to be short, but full of tragic events, of sweeping and drastic reforms. Those drastic measures enforced by the Báb and His followers were taken with the view of undermining the very foundations of Shi'ih orthodoxy, and thus paving the way for the coming of Bahá'u'lláh." (Shoghi Effendi, quoted in Bahá'u'lláh, The Kitáb-i-Aqdas [Haifa: Bahá'í World Centre, 1992] note 109, p. 214).
- In Millennialism, Persecution, and Violence (35), Wessinger writes, "The experience of devastating defeats has prompted other violent millennialists to become pacifists, notably the anabaptists and the Babis, who evolved into the Bahá'ís." This is based on Gary Waite's "The Religious State: A Comparative Study of Sixteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Opposition The Case of the Anabaptists and the Bábís," Journal of Bahá'í Studies 7.1 (1995): 69-90. If the Bábís can be described as violent, it is insofar as they were an assaulted millennialist group willing to take up arms to defend themselves against government assault, in accord with existing Islamic injunctions enjoining self-defence. The Báb's claim to fulfil Shiite millennialist expectation, however, played into some militant elements of that expectation and were heightened once the government assault began. The transition of which Wessinger writes was not a clear-cut movement from an anti-authoritarian militancy to an absolute pacifism. The Bahá'í Faith's teachings are not completely pacifist, since the religion recognizes as legitimate the need for national defence, as well as for an International Force whenever a world federation is developed. Clearly, however, this is force that is under legal control by institutions of governance.
- Piff, Bahá'í Lore, especially the chapter "Catastrophism in Bahá'í Popular Lore," 117-130.
- For instance, The Prosperity of Humankind (New York: Bahá'í International Community Office of Public Information, 1995) and subsequent statements.
- "The first candle is unity in the political realm, the early glimmerings of which can now be discerned." `Abdu'l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of `Abdu'l-Bahá (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1997) 32.
- "The fifth candle is the unity of nations - a unity which in this century will be securely established, causing all the peoples of the world to regard themselves as citizens of one common fatherland." ibid., 32.
- Universal House of Justice, Department of the Secretariat, letter dated 19 April 2001 to an individual, including a memorandum from the Research Department to the Universal House of Justice dated 19 April 2001, entitled "Attainment of the Unity of Nations and the Lesser Peace."
- David Yamartino, Come Now and Let Us Reason Together Saith the Lord: Understanding Prophecy and the Return of Christ (2000). Available in html or pdf format at http://www.reasontogether.com/
- Letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi in 1946, quoted in memorandum from the Research Department to the Universal House of Justice dated 19 April 2001, entitled "Attainment of the Unity of Nations and the Lesser Peace," 4.
- It must be noted that any manifestation of "catastrophic millennialism" in the mainstream Bahá'í Faith is characterized by preoccupation with the possibility of divine intervention to bring about one or more catastrophes that are expected to reinforce the fortunes of the Bahá'í Faith. It is not a catastrophism in which individuals or groups of Bahá'ís consider bringing about the catastrophe in order to hurry the transition, as such action is strongly abhorred in the Bahá'í teachings. This may serve as a solid preventive measure for managing the potentially violent effects of catastrophism.
- Many scholars of millennialism accept this model in its broad outlines, although readers should be cautious about using it as a procrustean bed for all millennialist movements. For an analysis of the Bábí period from this perspective, by a non-Bahá'í, see Gary K. Waite, "The Religious State," op.cit.
- Jacqueline Stone, "Japanese Lotus Millennialism," in Catherine Wessinger, ed., Millennialism, Persecution and Violence 261-280, especially 277-279.
- Lambden, "Catastrophe," 98.
- Note 62 in Bahá'u'lláh, The Kitáb-i-Aqdas 196.
- For instance, Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh 17-18, 25-26.
- Universal House of Justice, Department of the Secretariat, letter dated 19 April 2001.