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Bahá'í Apocalypticism:
The Concept of Progressive Revelation

by Zaid Lundberg

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Chapter 1


The purpose of this study is to systematically and structurally investigate a specific and central apocalyptic idea of the Bahá'í-religion — the concept of progressive revelation. The concept of progressive revelation is thereby seen as incorporated into a much greater and coherent system of apocalyptic ideas — that of Bahá'í-apocalypticism. This system is, in turn, subordinate to the Bahá'í-religion and the general study of apocalypticism.

In the first major part of this thesis, the general field of apocalypticism and the various dimensions of revelation will be introduced. The second major part — Bahá'í-apocalypticism — will introduce some important and pertinent areas to the concept of progressive revelation. Consequently, areas such as theology, cosmology, and prophetology, will be included and discussed, since it is possible to locate in them not only the overall framework for the concept of progressive revelation, but because they either tacitly, or implicitly, express various conceptual metaphors, structures, axes, and dimensions, which are associated with this concept. The third major part of this thesis examines the concept of progressive revelation by discerning specific and related key terms, concepts, metaphors, structures, axes, and dimensions, which ultimately are correlated to the general field of Bahá'í-apocalypticism. Finally, issues like the finality of revelation and the "Seal of the Prophets" are analyzed and discussed.

Before going into detail into Bahá'í'-apocalypticism and the concept of progressive revelation, it is necessary to briefly: review the general background of the Bahá'í-religion (Ch. II), survey some related studies (Ch. III), examine the methodology (Ch. IV), and the field of apocalypticism (Ch.V).

I. Background

The title of this thesis is Bahá'í Apocalypticism: the Concept of Progressive Revelation. Thus, the key terms for this study are: Bahá'í, apocalypticism/revelation, and the concept of progress.[1] The first two areas naturally fall within the study of religion whereas the third areas rather pertain more to philosophy or the study of history of ideas. Further, the idea of progress is also often associated with fields such as evolution, science, and technology.[2] Without attempting to define or operationalize the terms "apocalypticism," "revelation" or "progress" here, it may be useful to make a tentative distinction between: 1) religious writings on apocalypticism and ideas of progress (the religious context), 2) philosophical writings on apocalypticism and ideas of progress (the philosophical context), and 3) the scholarly study of these two fields (the scholarly context). The historical origins of the religious and philosophical contexts are rather obscure and difficult to ascertain, but scholars have attempted to locate apocalyptic themes in, e.g., the ancient Egyptian and Iranian religions,[3] and ideas of progress in ancient Greek philosophy and mythology.[4] However, in dealing with the concept of progressive revelation and its general background, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between religious and philosophical works. For example, there are works that are of a more religious nature and which allude to the idea of progress,[5] and there are philosophical works that contain features of apocalypticism.[6] Moreover, the scholarly studies of these two areas are, in comparison, fairly recent phenomena.

Although these important areas are beyond the scope of this thesis, there are two important historical events, or contexts, which are necessary to highlight and which emerged contemporaneously with the birth of the Bahá'í-religion. Consequently, they will function as a general frame of reference for the present study. The first event is located within the religious context and the second within the philosophical context.

1. The religious context

The Bahá'í-religion has its roots in the land of todays Iran (the ancient Persia), which is associated with at least one great prophet — Zarathustra. His name has subsequently been connected with, and given rise to, a world-religion — Zoroastrianism. Although scholars disagree upon the exact dating of Zarathustra, Zoroastrianism was once a state religion of three great Iranian empires.[7] The apocalyptic idea of the Saoshyant, or future "world saviour," is an especially noteworthy concept to the religious context of this thesis.[8] However, Zoroastrianism has, since the 7th century CE, been largely replaced and dominated by another great world religion — Islám. More precisely, it has since the 16th century CE been under the minority branch of Islám — Shí'ah ("Twelver-Shí'ia").[9] In turn, Shí'i Islám consists of a variety of bifurcations that have sprung from this branch.[10] Mary Boyce makes in this context an interesting observation regarding the apocalyptic relationship between Zoroastrianism and Shí'i Islám:

The Shí'i also found a figure to replace, in their hopes and longings, that of the Saoshyant. Bitterly disillusioned by the failure of the 'Abbasids to restore the caliphate to the descendants of 'Ali, they continued to regard the latter as the true imams or leaders, attributing them by virtue of their lineage and especial divine grace . . . Of the nine imams descended from Husayn . . . eight died violent deaths; but the last was held to have disappeared miraculously, in 878 [sic]. He is the 'hidden', or 'expected' imam, who will, like the Saoshyant, appear at the end of time, restore faith, and fill the earth with justice.[11]

During the middle of the 19th century prophetic expectations gradually peaked in the awaiting of the appearance of the "hidden imam," "al-Qá'im" or "al-Mahdi."[12] This was especially the case among adherents of the Shaykhi-movement and which subsequently created a fertile ground for the claim of the Báb[13] in 1844 and the emergence of the Bábí-religion.[14] Almost as soon as the múllas (Islámic clergy) were informed of the claims of the Báb, they arose in violent opposition throughout Persia to what they saw as heretical teachings. Consequently, growing attacks from mobs were instigated by the múllas and persecutions of the Bábís were common place.[15] The dispensation of the Báb was very short-lived and lasted only six years. In 1850, in an episode reminiscent of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the Báb was martyred together with a disciple by two firing squads each numbering 750 soldiers.[16]

According to the Bahá'ís,[17] the Báb's claim as the "hidden imám" is also seen the historical starting point of their religion, but although the two religions are seen as distinct, they are nonetheless seen as intimately connected. For example, in his major doctrinal work, the Bayán,[18] the Báb had made many allusions and prophecies about "Him Whom God will make manifest."[19] Bahá'u'lláh[20] was an early and distinguished disciple of the Báb. After the Báb's martyrdom Bahá'u'lláh undertook a journey to the holy places of Iráq, and when arriving to Tihrán (1852), he became aware that a group of fanatical Bábís had, in the wrath of revenge of the Báb's martyrdom, tried to assassinate the ruling emperor, Násiri'd-Dín Sháh. However, the attempt failed and the assassins were instantly killed. The assassination resulted in that many Bábís were either directly martyred, or first put in jail, only to be executed later. A few months later Bahá'u'lláh was also arrested and imprisoned in the notorious Síyáh-Chál ("Black Pit") in Tihrán. It was here were he had his first intimations of revelation (1852).[21] Since Bahá'u'lláh descended from a noble lineage he was spared execution but was, together with his family and followers, alternately banished and imprisoned throughout the Ottoman Empire (Iráq, Turkey, and Palestine/Israel). In Baghdád (1863), eleven years after his revelatory experience in the Síyáh Chál, Bahá'u'lláh proclaimed to be the one promised by the Báb. He is therefore seen as the founder of the Bahá'í-religion and hence its name.[22] Concerning the above stated passage by Boyce, it is also significant that Bahá'u'lláh eventually also claimed to be the promised one in both Zoroastrianism (the return of Sháh Bahrám Varjávand) and Shí'í Islám (the return of Imám Husayn).[23]

Before he passed away in Palestine/Israel (1892), Bahá'u'lláh appointed, in his will and testament, his eldest son, 'Abdu'l-Bahá[24] to be the interpreter and head of the young Bahá'í-community. It was 'Abdu'l-Bahá who brought the Bahá'í-religion to the Middle East and the West through his journeys to Egypt, Europe, and America (1911-1913). He, in his turn, appointed Shoghi Effendi,[25] the great grandson of Bahá'u'lláh, as the "Guardian" of the Bahá'í-community. Shoghi Effendi was educated in English literature at the American University in Beirut and Balliol College, Oxford.[26] In addition, he also translated and interpreted major works of both Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá, wrote a historical overview of the religion's first hundred years (1844-1944),[27] and administered the growing world-religion until he passed away in London (1957).[28] Bahá'u'lláh, 'Abdu'l-Bahá, and Shoghi Effendi are the three principal authors of the Bahá'í-religion, and their collected works are therefore essential to an analysis of Bahá'í-apocalypticism and the concept of progressive revelation.

2. The philosophical context

Above one can see that the Bahá'í-authors' lives span over almost two centuries (1817-1957) and, in addition, their combined travels stretched over geographical areas like Persia, the Near and Middle East, Africa, Europe, and North America. It is therefore important to briefly mention some early and contemporary notions of the concept of progressive revelation that may have influenced their writings. For example, in the middle part of the 18th century both Gotthold E. Lessing (1729-1781) and Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) wrote on the theme of progress or decline. The former wrote a pamphlet entitled Education of the Human Race (1780), and the latter wrote the monumental The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88). Although both authors may be of interest, it is the former who apparently wrote about a few themes that will subsequently be examined in this thesis. In his classical work The Idea of Progress (1920), J. B. Bury writes about Lessing as follows:

The thesis is that the drama of history is to be explained as the education of man by a progressive series of religions, a series not yet complete, for the future will produce another revelation to lift him to a higher plane than that to which Christ has drawn him up. This interpretation of history proclaimed Progress, but assumed an ideal and applied a measure very different from those of the French philosophers. The goal is not social happiness, but a full comprehension of God.[29]

Later on in this thesis it will be discovered that themes like "education," "a progressive series of religions," "a series not yet complete," and "a higher plane," are central key terms and concepts to Bahá'í-apocalypticism and the concept of progressive revelation.

Concurrently with the above stated messianic fervor of the middle of the 19th century, Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species (1859) established the evolutionary paradigm that, throughout the consecutive decades, revolutionized almost every field of endeavor in the Western world. Moreover, it was also the century which many new sciences saw the light of day, e.g., Sociology, Psychology, and the Science of Religion, or Religionswissenschaft.[30] In this context it is also interesting that Eric J. Sharpe writes that:

The decade from 1859 to 1969 witnessed the rapid development of an entirely new situation in the world religious study, a situation over which may be set as a rubric one word, 'evolution'. [. . . ] Might divine revelation itself be progressive, and might it be capable of interpretation on evolutionary principles? These were important questions, and they fascinated the late nineteenth century. [. . . ] an attempt was beginning to be made to view religion on the criteria provided by science, to judge the history and growth and evolution as one would judge the history, growth and evolution of any organism . . .[31]

The question "Might divine revelation itself be progressive" can be seen as the basic question of not only this thesis, but can also be seen as a challenge to any religion that defends not only exclusivity but, above all, the idea of finality of revelation. Moreover, the themes of "history," "growth," and "evolution of any organism" are all highly applicable key terms for the present study, since they are replete with organic metaphors. Thus, it can be seen that the idea of progress is not a new concept in the history but, when it was coupled with the evolutionary paradigm, it witnessed a new renaissance and strongly influenced the newly born field of Science of Religion. Consequently, titles like Edward Caird's (1902) The Evolution of Religion were in the ascendance since the 1860's and flourished even into the next century. An excerpt from his book will conclude this introduction, not only since it is contemporary with the Bahá'í-religion, but because it contains some very salient key terms and concepts that shall be develop in this thesis:

[ . . .] the unity of mankind must for our purpose be interpreted as involving not only the identity of human nature in all its various manifestations in all nations and countries, but also as implying that in their co-existence these manifestations can be connected together as different correlated phases of one life, and that in their succession they can be shown to be the necessary stages of one process of evolution. The conception of development is thus a corollary which cannot be disjoined from the principle of the unity of man itself. [ . . . ] the life of the individual is a sort of epitome of the history of humanity . . . all the stages of animal life are reproduced in the development of the human embryo. . . The history of the individual mind cannot be used by itself, at least in the first instance, as a key to the history of the race, but rather his life becomes intelligible by means of the large letters in which its stages are written in the life of mankind as a whole.[32]

The key terms and concepts of interest here are "the unity of mankind," the themes of "succession" and "stages of one process of evolution," and finally, the general scheme of a macro/microcosmos relationship, here depicted in that the history of mankind and the development of human beings are seen as organic parallels. These themes shall be discussed during and at the end of this thesis.

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