The Heroic in the Historical Writings of Shoghi Effendi and Nabil
by Jack McLean2006
Abstract: In his main historical works, God Passes By and The Promised Day Is Come, and unlike detached, "objective" academic histories, Shoghi Effendi made strong moral judgments of the characters he portrayed. Those who opposed the Bahá'í Faith and persecuted its founders are strongly condemned. Kings, prime ministers, courtiers, state officials and clerics are often his villains. On the other hand, the Báb and His early followers, the Letters of the Living (Hurúf-i-Hayy), His "apostolic order," who lived in the first and second periods of the early Bahá'í Era (1844-1892), are depicted as extraordinary divine heroes and heroines.
To present the sacred figures who lived in the first and second periods of the early Bahá’í Era (1844-1892), Shoghi Effendi followed the history of the ardent apostle of Bahá’u’lláh, poet-historian Nabíl–i-A’zam. It was Nabíl who first treated the religion’s early figures as divine heroes and heroines. Like Nabíl, Shoghi Effendi’s history is textured with overt dramatic, moral and theological elements, creating a distinct subgenre, written in an elevated, magisterial style. Without compromising its considerable historical value, this literature also aspired to cultivate devotion in the reader.
Postmodernity’s deep skepticism in a “morally bankrupt” world has tended to reject the heroic as an outmoded, quaint, or discredited model of human behaviour. Ours is the age of the anti-hero. However, the heroic remains key to Shoghi Effendi’s and Nabíl’s historical and spiritual vision. Their presentation of early Bábí figures will ensure the presence of the heroic as a defining feature of the Bábí-Bahá’í Faith’s early historical identity. This historical identity is intrinsic to a transcendental spirituality that belongs, not only to the early years of its Primitive Age, but will also serve to inspire today’s disoriented, “sore-tried and disillusioned” generation that “would seem to have lost as well its faith and hope”.
The heroic will be explored here through a theological, literary and historical framework that compares and contrasts Shoghi Effendi’s and Nabíl’s heroic to Thomas Carlyle’s concept of the prophet as hero, and to selected features of the nineteenth century’s morally ambiguous romantic hero. In Shoghi Effendi’s and Nabíl’s portrayals of the Báb, Mullá Husayn, Quddús and Táhirih, and the Bábí defense at the siege of Fort Shaykh Tabarsí, the normally incompatible elements of historical realism, one the one hand, and myth as sacred story and “tales of heroes,” on the other, converge. While maintaining focus on the subject, my treatment of the three Letters of the Living will diverge from Shoghi Effendi and Nabíl to consider other historical accounts.
The Báb: The Prophet as Master Hero of the Heroic Age
Shoghi Effendi’s predilection for the heroic appears in the nomenclature he used to periodize the three ages of Bábí-Bahá’í history. The first of the three ages he named the Heroic Age (1844-1921), thus creating a close association between heroism and the Bahá’í Faith’s first division of historical time. This designation of the Bahá’í Era’s first seventy-seven years is based upon the Guardian’s reverence for the some 20,000 martyrs who gave their lives for the new faith proclaimed by the Báb, in successive waves of persecution that he described as “the holocaust which baptized its birth”. As a Major Prophet or Manifestation of God, and the Promised One (Qá’ím) to the Muslim world, the Báb stands out as the preeminent Hero of the heroes and heroines of the Heroic Age. Using the analogy of the theatre play to describe the birth of the new revelation, and the spectacular but tragic brevity of the Báb’s life, Shoghi Effendi wrote:
We behold, as we survey the episodes of this first act of a sublime drama, the figure of its Master Hero, the Báb, arise meteor-like above the horizon of Shiráz, traverse the sombre sky of Persia from south to north, decline with tragic swiftness, and perish in a blaze of glory. We see His satellites, a galaxy of God-intoxicated heroes, mount above that same horizon, irradiate that same incandescent light, burn themselves out with that self-same swiftness, and impart in their turn an added impetus to the steadily gathering momentum of God’s nascent Faith.Shoghi Effendi’s eulogy of the Báb as Master Hero resonates with the nineteenth century’s preoccupation with the hero and can be correlated to a literary motif or character-type found in On Heroes and Hero-Worship by the Scottish essayist, satirist and historian, Thomas Carlyle. In his 1841 typological collection of essays, Carlyle devoted one essay to the Prophet Muhammad. While his judgment of the Arabian Prophet and the Qur’án was definitely mixed, and would be problematic for orthodox Muslims, “The Hero as Prophet” vigorously abolished some of the deed-seated prejudices held then about the Prophet and Islam, and showed a progressive spirit by giving qualified praise of both the Holy Book and its author. His judgment of the Qur’án is more severe than his assessment of Muhammad, forgivable in a great writer who was reading the holy book in translation, and who saw no coherence in the order of the various surahs, arranged by length, which he called “a wearisome confused jumble”. But he attributes the Qur’án with “genuineness” and calls it “fervent” and “earnest”.
Although his type-casting of the prophet as hero has by no means since proved unique, Carlyle’s was an early and instructive treatment of a Major Prophet as hero. Just as importantly, it established the typology[12 ]of the Prophet as Hero which appeared later in Shoghi Effendi’s treatment of the Báb. It is clear from the selection and range of Carlye’s heroes, which exemplified six different types, that he intended to extend heroism beyond the usual confines of the fiery revolutionary or conquering military hero. Only one of the types explored by Carlyle, “The Hero as King,” a study of the Emperor Napoleon and the Puritan general and statesman Cromwell, conformed to the old, familiar category.
As an admirer of Carlyle’s style, which served him as prose model along with his beloved Gibbon, Shoghi Effendi intensified Carlyle’s epithet. From the point of view of the phenomenology of religion, and its preoccupation with finding essences and making classifications, the description of the Báb as Master Hero qualifies as an “ideal type” or archetype, the Hero-Prophet or Martyr-Prophet, of which the Báb constitutes the sublime paradigm. Among other spiritual attributes, the Master Hero paradigm is constellated by self-sacrifice, spiritual passion, saintliness, nobility, purity of heart, meekness, charm, undaunted courage and supernatural knowledge and power. In The Dispensation of Bahá’u’lláh, a definitive theological treatise that clearly distinguished the stations (cf. Persian maqám) of the Three Central Figures of the Bahá’í Faith, and their relationships to one another, Shoghi Effendi alluded to “the youthful glory of the Báb, infinite in His tenderness, irresistible in His charm, unsurpassed in His heroism, matchless in the dramatic circumstances of His short yet eventful life”.
With His aristocratic bearing, prophetic lineage and beauty of character, Bahá’u’lláh’s Herald is a larger-than-life charismatic figure whose outstanding attribute is the ability to reveal copious divine verses. In the Qayyúmu’l-Asmá, and especially the Persian Bayán, the Báb openly laid bare His power to reveal a new Holy Book as the strongest proof of His prophethood, drawing a parallel between Himself and the Prophet of Hijáz:
There is no doubt that the Almighty hath sent down these verses unto Him[the Báb], even as He sent down unto the Apostle of God. Indeed no less than a hundred thousand verses similar to these have already been disseminated among the people, not to mention His Epistles, His Prayers or His learned and philosophical treatises. He revealeth no less than a thousand verses within the space of five hours. He reciteth verses at a speed consonant with the capacity of His amanuensis to set them down....If ye contend that these verses cannot, of themselves, be regarded as a proof, scan the pages of the Qur’án..... When God hath testified that the Book is a sufficient testimony, as is affirmed in the text, how can one dispute this truth by saying that the Book in itself is not a conclusive proof?.Possessed of such powers and abilities, the Báb presents Himself as the perfected prototype of the Divine Hero, one that, unlike the Olympian gods and heroes, does not share in their sins and foibles. (Such flaws caused literary figures, such as the great tragedian, Euripides, to subject the Greek divinities to a life-long barrage of ridicule and hostility). In light of Shoghi Effendi’s epithet, the Master Hero can be added to the litany of “excellent titles” by which God and the Prophets are known. While this title has not erased all associations with former heroes, the Master Hero, as its name indicates, raises the heroic qualities to the level of an ideal type.
The Moral Ambiguity of the Romantic Hero
Carlyle’s study is only one indicator that the nineteenth century was fascinated by the hero; the hero of romantic literature is another. Shoghi Effendi’s diction to describe the episode of the Báb and His companions — “sublime drama....meteor-like...tragic swiftness...perish in a blaze of glory” — reflects the language of spiritual romanticism but places the Báb and His companions in a higher order of character-type. However, Frederick R. Karl’s positive interpretation of the romantic hero echoed its Christian antecedents. Karl emphasized “...simple purity, natural goodness of heart and action, and basically Christian morality, a hero who was an aristocratic Christian knight in modern dress”. Now some of these positive descriptors, mutatis mutandis, apply to the Báb. Bahá’u’lláh has said of Him that “He was afraid of no one; He was regardless of consequences”. His brief but telling statement underscores the Báb’s indomitable courage with its utter disregard for His own safety. This complete abandon and total commitment to a cause, in defiance of death itself, is one of the traits associated with the romantic and heroic soul.
Karl’s interpretation of the romantic hero was, of course, ideal. In contrast to the Master Hero, the romantic hero also presents some repulsive as well as attractive features, such as the emotional and psychological excesses and the sickly “...sense of corrupt failure”.The best-known prototype of the nineteenth century romantic hero is the Byronic, antithetically mixed villain-hero. Peter L. Thorslev’s instructive study, The Byronic Hero: Types and Prototypes, details well the history and development of the eighteenth and nineteenth century hero types, and their heightened intellectual and emotional traits, sensibility being chief among them. Byron’s prototype is Childe Harold, the romantic rebel, “...the first important Byronic Hero, and the prototype of all the rest”. However, the heightened sensibility, emotional volatility, and extreme self-absorption of the romantic hero, created a figure who was severely disturbed as well as fascinating. While daring and non-conformism may be admirable in the person of sensibility, it often came at the cost of emotional, moral and spiritual anarchy. Notwithstanding Byron’s recognized poetic genius, and although he died at Missolonghi in west central Greece, after exhausting himself in leading a faction of Greek revolutionaries who were planning to overthrow the king, his personal life was a series of chaotic, scandalous, sometimes tragic, romantic liaisons. The philosopher Bertrand Russell made the following valid critique of the romantic movement’s standard of values which he arguably distinguished from romantic psychology:
It is not the psychology of the romantics that is at fault: it is their standard of values. They admire strong passions, of no matter what kind, and whatever may be their social consequences. Romantic love, especially when unfortunate, is strong enough to win their approval, but most of the strongest passions are destructive–hate and resentment and jealousy, remorse and despair, outraged pride and the fury of the unjustly oppressed, martial ardour and contempt for slaves and cowards. Hence the type of man encouraged by romanticism, especially of the Byronic variety, is violent and anti-social, an anarchic rebel or a conquering tyrant.History as Sublime Drama
One of the keys to Shoghi Effendi’s historical vision is found in a metaphor that compares the contest between the early Bábí-Bahá’ís and the Islamic Church-State, and the subsequent interactions between the rising world order of Bahá’u’lláh and the declining old world order, to a “sublime drama”. Tragedy and heroism are basic components of the metaphor: the tragic martyrdom of the Báb, the heroism of His followers, and the world’s callous rejection of Bahá’u’lláh, with its resultant ongoing catastrophes. This, for Shoghi Effendi, is “the greatest drama in the world’s spiritual history”. Reviewing the momentous beginnings of the Báb’s revelation, Shoghi Effendi calls the reader’s attention to the “dramatic power ”and “tragedy and heroism” that inspired the remarkable events portrayed by Nabíl in his moving narrative, The Dawn-Breakers:
Little wonder that the immortal chronicler of the events associated with the birth and rise of the Bahá’í Revelation has seen fit to devote no less than half of his moving narrative to the description of those happenings that have during such a brief space of time so greatly enriched, through their tragedy and heroism, the religious annals of mankind. In sheer dramatic power, in the rapidity with which events of momentous importance succeeded each other, in the holocaust which baptized its birth, in the miraculous circumstances attending the martyrdom of the One Who had ushered it in, in the potentialities with which it had been from the outset so thoroughly impregnated, in the forces to which it eventually gave birth, this nine-year period may well rank as unique in the whole range of man’s religious experience.In the following passage, the heroic behaviour of the Letters of the Living and their companions is starkly contrasted to the barbaric treatment they received from the Shiah clerics and the Qájár royal house. The passage illustrates Shoghi Effendi’s penchant for advocacy, apology, and the strong value-judgments pronounced for or against the heroes and villains referred to in the Introduction:
The heroes whose deeds shine upon the record of this fierce spiritual contest, involving at once people, clergy, monarch and government, were the Báb’s chosen disciples, the Letters of the Living, and their companions, the trail-breakers of the New Day, who to so much intrigue, ignorance, depravity, cruelty, superstition and cowardice opposed a spirit exalted, unquenchable and awe-inspiring, a knowledge surprisingly profound, an eloquence sweeping in its force, a piety unexcelled in fervor, a courage leonine in its fierceness, a self-abnegation saintly in its purity, a resolve granite-like in its firmness, a vision stupendous in its range, a veneration for the Prophet and His Imams disconcerting to their adversaries, a power of persuasion alarming to their antagonists, a standard of faith and a code of conduct that challenged and revolutionized the lives of their countrymen.Two Outstanding Letters of the Living: Mullá Husayn and Quddús
Among the Letters of the Living, three outstanding apostles capture our attention: Mullá Husayn, Quddús and Táhirih. Using Carlyle’s criterion, Mullá Husayn, the Báb’ul-Báb, was a revolutionary priestly reformer. He fits, not only the ancient motif of the warrior-hero, but he answers the description of some of the salient features mentioned by Carlyle in his essay “The Hero as Priest”:
The priest too, as I understand it, is a kind of Prophet; in him too there is required to be a light of inspiration, as we must name it. He presides over the worship of the people; is the Uniter of them with Unseen Holy. He is the spiritual Captain of the people; as the Prophet is their spiritual King with many captains: he guides them heavenward, by wise guidance through this Earth and its work.Applied to Mullá Husayn, Carlyle’s remark that the priest “is a kind of Prophet” finds echoes in the Persian Bayán and the Kitáb-i-Panj Shan (The Book of the Five Modes). While none of the eighteen Letters of the Living was a prophet, they are nonetheless extraordinarily eulogized by the Báb as the return of eighteen Immaculate Souls: the Prophet Muhammad, the Twelve Imams, Fátima and the Four Gates (abwáb) to the Hidden Imam. The Kitáb-i-Panj Shan identifies Mullá Husayn as “the throne of the point of the Qur’án” i.e. Muhammad. Similar statements are made about Quddús. Although Mullá Husayn had a “..fragile frame and trembling hand....”, he not only skilfully wielded the sword during the battles against the Shah’s troops in Mázindarán, but he was also just as accomplished with the pen, composed erudite theological treatises and preached stirringly.
Mullá Muhammad-Alí, Quddús, the “last point,” “the last name of God,” whose position was “far above that of any of the Letters of the Living”, the mirror who most perfectly reflected the light of the Báb, while he was theologically trained, does not fit the warrior-priest model. He is the pietistic, self-effacing ‘árif, the mystic — solitary, self-contained, independently-minded. While he attended a Shaykhí school in Mashad, like other Bábís, and afterward studied with Siyyid Kázim Rashtí in Karbilá, he wrote little while there, and left the school before the siyyid’s death to attend to the family business. To avoid drawing attention to himself, he arrived late to lectures and left early. He preferred Sufi dress and practice. Quddús’s profound learning was amply demonstrated in his lengthy quaranic commentary on the Sád of Samad. At Fort Shaykh Tabarsí, the besieged companions all recognized Quddús as their commander-in-chief. It was to him that they turned for inspiration, strength and strategic direction. This quiet, unassuming Bábí chief chanted prayers during the respite from battle, roused his brethren with his eloquence, and was shown great reverence and deference by his captain, Mullá Husayn.
The Lone Female Letter: The Immortal Táhirih
Along with Quddús and Mullá Husayn, Táhirih completes the outstanding triad within the first Vahíd (unity) that constituted the Letters of the Living. The Cambridge Orientalist E.G. Browne wrote: “The appearance of such a woman as Kurratu’l-‘Ayn is in any country and any age a rare phenomenon, but in such a country as Persia it is a prodigy — nay, almost a miracle”. Browne ventured that she was, by herself, a sufficient proof of the Bábí religion. Her life, and especially her martyrdom, attracted international attention to Babísm and ensured for her immortal fame. She had a number of names and titles, but Fátima Zarrín Táj Baraghání is generally known within and outside Bahá’í circles by two cognomens whose source has been clearly identified by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Táhirih (the Pure One), a name she received in 1848 at the Conference of Badasht from Bahá’u’lláh, and Qurratu’l-‘Ayn (Consolation of the Eyes), a name given by her Shaykhi teacher, Siyyid Kázim Rashtí, who admired her greatly.
Susan Stiles Maneck has observed that “Táhirih...presents a startling contrast to the former models”. Táhirih is, in fact, such “a startling contrast” that she does not easily fit the familiar labels or categories used to describe the extraordinary feminine figures in the various world religions. Even the word heroine, the most accurate descriptor, does not completely encompass her. Scholars may compare Táhirih to other feminine religious models, most notably to her namesake, Fatimá, the prophet Muhammad’s daughter, but in the end, the wider range of her exceptional talents and virtues, and her closer historical proximity, make her a unique and captivating figure. Shoghi Effendi tells us that the French scholar, writer and mystic, Jules Bois, compared her to the medieval Héloïse, to the neoplatonist Alexandrian philosopher, Hypatia, and called her “the Persian Joan of Arc”. While these are no mean comparisons, the facets of her mission and person were many. For Táhirih was all of ecstatic poet, daring social reformer, heretical Bábí, vigorous polemicist, fearless contrarian, unsurpassed orator, redoubtable debater, charismatic teacher, incisive theologian, religious revolutionary, woman of virtue and beauty, fearless martyr and courageous heroine.
Shoghi Effendi’s designation of her as “the first woman suffrage martyr” is accurate when taken to mean that she advocated the emancipation of women in her own land. Táhirih effectively accomplished this social reform through activities that were usually forbidden to her sex: scholarship, debate, teaching, association with men, and, of course, her dramatic unveiling at the Conference of Badasht. While neither her own writings, nor those of the Báb, advocated the education of women or easing the restrictions of the veil, the Báb’s identification of Táhirih with Fátima in the introduction to the Persian Bayán was radical enough. For one thing, as Todd Lawson has pointed out, the Prophet daughter possessed walaya (religious authority) “as an equal bearer...along with the Imams and Muhammad the prophet”. Táhirih’s three month march from Baghdad to Qazvín in 1847, during which she publicly preached the advent of the new manifestation, demonstrated that Táhirih enjoyed wider popular support than any other Bábí leader. In Sahna, a reported 12,000 people spontaneously offered to march with her, an offer she declined.
Just as some of the laws of the Báb were necessarily severe in order to break down the thick walls of Islamic orthodoxy and fanaticism, the spirit of Táhirih was the living embodiment of those same laws. That this dynamic force was concentrated in the body, mind and spirit of a beautiful, learned and eloquent woman could not but add to the outrage of the mujtahids. In a land frozen in medieval time, where women did not speak publicly on religious matters, Táhirih spoke out defiantly, challenging the unchallengeable, flouting sacro-sanct doctrines and laws and breaking with time-honored customs.
When Táhirih addressed the assembly at Badasht, unveiled and dressed in men’s clothes, she simultaneously violated old boundaries and created new, liberating ones. The most scandalized of those assembled in the tiny hamlet, an “Isfahání zealot,” cut his own throat in protest and apostatized his faith. Moving easily and speaking boldly, she appealed for sexual equality, addressing the assembly as “brothers,” even as she proclaimed the abrogation of the old Shariah, and the inauguration of a new religious dispensation. She presented herself to the predominantly male body of confused and shocked Bábís as their “sister”. The measure of her daring can be gaged from the reaction of the more orthodox followers who had assembled there, Quddús being their chief, who branded her as a “heretic”. But such were her powers of persuasion that she won over in the debate even the unmoveable Quddús. They reportedly left the conference side by side in the Howdah chanting poems, Táhirih unveiled, in what must have seemed like a debauch to the astonished villagers of Níyálá who witnessed the scene.
At Badasht religious and social revolution made common cause. Not only had Táhirih proclaimed a new religious cycle; a modern, social reform movement putting the relationship between the sexes on a new footing had been inaugurated. Táhirih was the first recorded Persian woman to unveil herself in the presence of men who were not her relatives. Her symbolic gesture signified that on the Day of Resurrection women and men could share the same sacred space unafraid. A woman’s face was no longer to be considered the object of fear or excitation, reserved only for the members of her immediate family. It was to be perceived as the proper, public sign of God’s familial love.
In a strange sense, it was appropriate that Táhirih’s death should have come by strangulation and burial in a well, for she had intuited in advance her own end and had reserved a silk scarf for the purpose. In the eyes of an outraged clergy, the moving torrent of truth and poetry that flowed from her lips had to be silenced. In a thought-provoking essay that explores the ways that Táhirih’s life promoted the emancipation of women, Farzaneh Milani has drawn our attention to the meaning of the Persian word for strangulation, khafeh kardan, which also more commonly conveys “suppressing, stifling, silencing.” She comments: “Her voice was silenced because she shouldn’t have spoken in the first place. Her body was hidden because she shouldn’t have unveiled it”.
Táhirih was a source of inspiration, not only for those late nineteenth and early twentieth century European writers, playwrights and social activists who saw in her life a courageous model for the emancipation of women. She was, and is, widely known on the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent for her literary attainments and heroism. Professor Sabir Afaqi, former head of the Urdu and Persian departments at Azad Kashmir University in Mazaffarabad, considers her to be the founder of modern Persian poetry.The famous philosopher, Persian and Urdu poet and ideological founder of modern Pakistan, Muhammad Iqbal, has written that Táhirih provided a unique model of woman figures for the world. The brilliant and undaunted faith of Qurratu'l ‘Ayn found expression, all at once, in far-reaching social reform, a condensed body of spontaneous, ecstatic Persian, Arabic and Turkish poetry, and in the birth of a world religion.
The High Point of Heroism: The Siege of Fort Shaykh Tabarsí
Shoghi Effendi’s and Nabil’s presentation of the Bábí struggles are epitomized by the combat at the shrine of Shaykh Tabarsí in the province of Mázindarán (1848-49). From within their fortified shrine fourteen miles south-east of Bárfurúsh, now Babol, 313 Bábís, commanded by Quddús and led by Mullá Husayn, fought off two regiments of infantry and cavalry that were encamped beyond seven barricades. The army was led by Prince Mihdí-Qulí Mírzá, commander of the army of Mázindarán, and a brother of Muhammad Shah. The length of the contest itself indicates the remarkable resistance shown by the defenders. The government forces had seriously underestimated their capability. Hájí Mustafá Khán-i-Turkamán, a military advisor to the young seventeen year old Shah, Násiri’d-Dín, estimated that the Bábís would be defeated “within the space of two days,” whereas the siege actually lasted eleven months. The same advisor reported that the army the Shah had intended to despatch to Mázindarán was not required since only “a small detachment of that army will be sufficient to wipe them out”. The lightly armed defenders on horseback, while they were pinned down, had the advantage of mobility and surprise attack. The encamped government troops and their commanders were at times completely unnerved by the fiery zeal that steeled their opponents.
The repeated skirmishes eventually took their toll on the companions. From the time of their arrival in Bárfurúsh in October 1848, to the death of Mullá Husayn in February 1849, seventy-two Bábís had died. The Shah’s troops intensified their attack as the defenders watched their own numbers gradually dwindle. One of the army’s commanders, Ja’far-Qulí Khán, ordered four towers to be built, one on each corner of the fort, causing cannon fire to rain down on the interior of the stronghold which the defenders bravely attempted to evade by digging underground trenches in the soggy ground. It was the beginning of the end. Their clothes rotted off their flesh in the mud and the damp. After the death of Mullá Husayn, and after suffering from months of near starvation, Quddús finally agreed to the offer of a truce after a promise of safe-passage was signed by the Prince in the pages of the Qur'án. The sacred oath was precipitously violated. Most of the Bábís were massacred, including their leader Quddús, while others were sold as slaves.
Siyyid Husayn Hamadání’s Táríkh-i-Jadíd (A New History), reports the words of Abbás Qulí Khán, one of the joint-commanders of government troops, on the remarkable swordsmanship of Mullá Husayn. His eye-witness testimony well exemplifies the spirit that animated Mullá Husayn and his co-defenders:
The truth of the matter is that anyone who had not seen Karbilá would, if he had seen Tabarsí, not only have comprehended what there took place, but would have ceased to consider it; and had he seen Mullá Husayn of Bushrúyih, he would have been convinced that the Chief of Martyrs had returned to earth;...I swear by God that on that day he wielded the sword in such wise as transcends the power of man. Only the horsemen of Mázindarán held their ground and refused to flee.The Convergence of Myth and History in the Sacred
The fervent spirituality and remarkable deeds referred to by Shoghi Effendi and Nabíl above were born into the full light of modern history. The contests between the Shah’s troops and the Bábís, and the horrific pogroms instigated by a fanatical clergy and populace, were well documented by scores of credible eye-witness, both European and Middle-Eastern, partisans and adversaries alike. For this reason, the spiritual heroic manifested by the Bábís, while it retains the sense of awe, wonder and power associated with mythological heroes, has been made credible by the veracity and realism of the historical record. The documented, historical character of these events lifts Nabíl’s Narrative out of the purely mythological, or hagiographical, and grounds it in the credible.
Shoghi Effendi’s and Nabíl’s portrayals of the Dawn-Breakers at Tabarsí are broadly mythical in that they reflect “tales of heroes” and “myths as truths,” only two of seven academic definitions of myth identified by Russell T. McCutcheon. Tabarsí has become a defining moment in Bahá’í history as “...a story that is sacred to and shared by a group of people who find their most important meanings in it”. One of these important meanings is that Tabarsí represents a historically lived demonstration of the superlative transforming power of the Báb on His followers. The heroism shown at Fort Tabarsí has become a high-point in the developing historical and spiritual consciousness of the Bahá’í community with which it may identify. Mullá Husayn’s arrival at the fort, the day after a premonitory dream by its custodian, which foretold the arrival of the Imám Husayn with seventy-two warriors, and a large number of his companions, that included eventually the Prophet of God himself, “...engaged in the most heroic of battles...”, is presented by Nabíl as the arrival of a venerated hero: “When Mullá Husayn arrived on the following day, the guardian immediately recognised him as the hero he had seen in his vision, threw himself at his feet, and kissed them devoutly”.
While the Bábís are fearsome, awe-inspiring, even magical, they are nonetheless real. Mullá Husayn’s cutting in two, with a single stroke, the fleeing man, his musket, and the tree behind which he had hidden, is not a pious exaggeration intended to supplement the narrative with a miraculous event. The feat of this cleric who was never trained in any of the arts of war, was witnessed and reported by the same commander of the Shah’s troops quoted above, Abbás Qulí Khán. This story is credible becomes it originates with an adversary who would have had no motive for exaggeration.
As alluded to above, the exploits of the Dawn-Breakers serve the vital function identified in the sociology of religion as the creation and maintenance of an emergent religious community’s identity through the selection and framing of the words and deeds of its spiritual ancestors. God Passes By and The Dawn-Breakers have become repositories of sacred memories from which future generations of Bahá’ís may continue to derive, not only fresh inspiration, but possible fields for further historical research.
Readers should not be discomfited by associations between myth and the history of the Dawn-Breakers, as a trivialization of either their high station or their exploits. The distinguished American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s distinction between “primitive myth” and “permanent myth” is useful here to differentiate pre-scientific from properly mythical function. The primitive myth is rendered absurd by scientific analysis; the permanent myth is not. The permanent myth determines, rather, the human being’s orientation to the Divine Power, Absolute or powers that are perceived to determine one’s existence and on whom the universe depends. Shelly scholar, Dr. Ross Woodman, has observed that myth, understood this way, is essential to the Bahá’í Faith: “Mythos as a narrative of a god brings us face to face (“the Face of God”) with another order of reality beyond the human...Mythos ultimately requires the spirit of faith that transcends rational knowledge...If mythos disappears, so does Bahá’u’lláh”. Now the reliance on God for the besieged Bábís was total and absolute. In this respect, their story transcends the confines of Bábí history and becomes universal history. The defenders at Fort Tabarsí became both the creators of and participants in the sacred story which they helped bring to life and hand down to posterity.
Philosopher Ernst Cassirer has cogently described the dramatic elements that mythological language brings to life. In the Heilsgeschichte (sacred/salvation history), to which both God Passes By and Nabíl’s Narrative belong, this polarized live atmosphere of contending forces is keenly felt. The philosopher’s words may well be used to describe the world in which the Bábís fought and died to vindicate the religion of their Promised One :
The world of myth is a dramatic world — a world of actions, of forces of conflicting powers....Whatever is seen or felt is surrounded by a special atmosphere — an atmosphere of joy and grief, of anguish, of excitement, or exultation or depression. Here we cannot speak of “things” as dead or indifferent stuff. All objects are benignant , friendly or inimical, familiar or uncanny, alluring and fascinating or repellent and threatening.Conclusion
In his Introduction to A Traveller’s Narrative, the noted orientalist Edward Granville Browne, who was the first to make the religion of the Báb an object of academic study in the English-speaking world, remarked that the student of religion had, in Babísm, the unique opportunity to study the circumstances surrounding “...the birth of a new faith which may not impossibly win a place amidst the great religions of the world”. Browne freely admitted to being much impressed by the heroic traits manifested in the lives of the Bábís he had met in Persia in 1887-1888:
...for here he may contemplate such personalities as by lapse of time pass into heroes and demi-gods still unobscured by myth and fable; he may examine by the light of concurrent and independent testimony one of those strange outbursts of enthusiasm, faith, fervent devotion, and indomitable heroism — or fanaticism, if you will — which we are accustomed to associate with the earlier history of the human race.Historian of the American church, David Hein, remarking on Max Weber’s prescient observation about “the disenchantment of the world,” made at the beginning of the twentieth century, observed that we are all made poorer by the demise of the hero:
The hero’s decline is part of the larger process of the disenchantment of the world and the flattening-out of our experience. The landscape of the ancient hero was the rich terrain of myth and legend: east of the sun and west of the moon. Our own realm seems more barren and impoverished without the adventurers and their marvelous deeds.The episode of the Báb and the Dawn-Breakers, which constitutes the last chapter of legitimate, defensive jihád, has greatly enriched the now largely abandoned realm to which Hein refers. Browne had remarked that in the appearance of the Báb, His warriors and followers, ancient heroes and heroines had come to life again. In the writings of Shoghi Effendi and Nabíl, history and myth do not cancel each other out; they converge. The Heroic Age of the dispensation of the Bayán gave ample proof of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity and death, through an abiding, transcendental power. This same power may serve us well in our own day and in our own time.