back to Main Index
notes by Juan Cole (non-faculty)
The Tablet is one of the early proclamatory Tablets sent by
Bahá'u'lláh from Edirne when he publicly announced His mission. The
first of these to arrive in Tehran was addressed to Áqá Munir (Munib)
Kashani. Nabíl says that this Tablet arrived in the latter part of 1282
(early 1866) and that it was the first news
he had had of Bahá'u'lláh in Edirne. Nabíl must immediately have
contacted Bahá'u'lláh, and this Tablet seems to be the reply he
received. Bahá'u'lláh clearly states His station as He whom God shall
make manifest, the return of the spirit of the Báb and of Quddus, as
well as the fulfillment of the Qur'an and of Christianity. Indeed, in the
famous middle passage translated by Shoghi Effendi in Gleanings,
Bahá'u'lláh here identifies Himself with all the past Prophets and their
sufferings. This passage has a "frame" story based on the Shi`ite
narrative of the martyrdom of Imám Husayn at Karbala, in what is now
Iraq. Bahá'u'lláh depicts himself sprawled out upon the field of battle,
mortally wounded (as Imám Husayn was).
The following is a literary
analysis of this passage, published in Poetics Today, 14:3 (Fall 1993): 447-47. It is also online at http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jrcole/bhproph.htm.
"I am all the Prophets":Juan R.I. Cole
The Poetics of Pluralism in Bahá'í Texts
Poetics Today 14: 3 (Fall 1993), pages 447-476
The idea of the equal validity of the world religions tends to evoke one of two reactions. It is often rejected out of hand, by those who appeal to Aristotelian logic, as contrary to common sense and refuted by the incompatibility of religious doctrines, whether Judaism's strict monotheism, Christianity's incarnationism, or Hinduism's pantheism. Such thinkers insist that the religions make competing and incompatible truth-claims. Among those who find the idea of religious pluralism attractive, this underlying spiritual unity is often merely asserted, without being explored in a rigorous manner. Exceptions here are John Hick and Wilfred Cantwell Smith, who, as believing Christians, have argued with some cogency the case for the simultaneous truth of each of the world religions. Hick identifies three main theological approaches to dealing with the diversity of human religious experience: 1) exclusivists see only one mode of religious thought (their own) as true, and others as false; 2) inclusivists maintain that their own tradition is blessed with the whole truth, but other religions might possess some truth; and 3) pluralists believe that the great world faiths all embody equally valid human responses to the ultimately Real. Fundamentalist movements tend to adopt an exclusivist point of view, whereas Roman Catholicism has since Vatican II committed itself to inclusivism. Hindu schools of thought likewise tend either to inclusivism or to an outright commitment to pluralism. At least one religion exists for which a pluralist theology of the religions constitutes part of its scriptural essence, and that is the Bahá'í Faith. Bahá'í texts assert, not only the underlying unity of the world religions, but also the unity of the High Prophets, or founders of those world religions. Some philosophers of religion remain wedded to the notion that religion consists of a set of propositions that are subject to the principle of non-contradiction, and for these thinkers the question arises of how anyone can justify holding a religious pluralism. This sort of query deserves an answer, though perhaps only an ironic one. I want here to propose that it leads us inexorably into a concern with textuality and the literariness of religious texts. Since we have, in the Bahá'í Faith, a religion whose scriptures often state the truth of the pluralist position, the question arises of what rhetorical techniques render this assertion of pan-religious unity immediate and plausible to believers.
The Bahá'í faith was founded in the nineteenth-century Middle East by an Iranian nobleman and visionary, Mírzá Husayn `Alí Nuri (1817-1892), known as Bahá'u'lláh or "the Glory of God." Developing out of Iranian Islam and the Bábí movement in the mid-nineteenth century, the Bahá'í faith arguably represents the emergence of the first new world religion since Islam, and is the most widely-spread religion in the world after Christianity, having 4.5 million adherents in 1990, with India now the largest national community. The basic principles of the religion were summarized by one of its leaders, Shoghi Effendi Rabbani (who served as its head 1921-1957), in this way:
The Bahá'í Faith recognizes the unity of God and of His Prophets, upholds the principle of an unfettered search after truth, condemns all forms of superstition and prejudice, teaches that the fundamental purpose of religion is to promote concord and harmony, that it must go hand-in-hand with science, and that it constitutes the sole and ultimate basis of a peaceful, an ordered and progressive society. It inculcates the principle of equal opportunity, rights and privileges for both sexes, advocates compulsory education, abolishes extremes of poverty and wealth, exalts work performed in the spirit of service to the rank of worship, recommends the adoption of an auxiliary international language, and provides the necessary agencies for the establishment and safeguarding of a permanent and universal peace.
Passages about the unity of the High Prophets and of the world religions abound in Bahá'u'lláh's writings, for he made this principle one of the cornerstones of his new religion. The precise roots and original context of the Bahá'í belief in the spiritual unity of Moses and Muhammad, of Zoroaster and Jesus, lie primarily in the esoteric and eschatological motifs of Iranian Islam, though other influences are also apparent. Shoghi Effendi wrote that the Bahá'í faith's
teachings revolve around the fundamental principle that religious truth is not absolute but relative, that Divine Revelation is progressive, not final. Unequivocally and without the least reservation it proclaims all established religions to be divine in origin, identical in their aims, complementary in their functions, continuous in their purpose, indispensable in their value to mankind.
This relativity itself, however, is bounded by history, pragmatism and ethics. That is, the truth of the great world religions is asserted, but it is admitted that some small religious movements and cults might be false. The Bahá'í criterion for the truth of a prophetic message is that it offer believers ethical and spiritual guidance, that it be long-lasting in its impact, that it encompass large numbers of persons, and that it inspire both a new organized religion and ultimately a civilization.
Throughout the history of Islam, mainline Muslim clerics tended to deny the truth of Zoroastrianism, Hinduism and Buddhism, and they refused to accept the existing Bible as a reliably transmitted scripture. The nineteenth century witnessed, however, the growth of a class of intellectuals not themselves clergy, who proved more open to outside influences. Many Iranian intellectuals acquired an interest in the Zoroastrian past of their country, and knowledge of this non-Abrahamic tradition had a relativizing effect on their religious ideas. The indigenous Jewish community constituted an object of interest for other intellectuals, some of whom learned Hebrew, while Iran's close cultural and economic links with India led many merchants and travellers into a contact with Hinduism. Finally, the activities of Christian missionaries, and new Arabic and Persian translations of the Bible, made the Christian scriptures available to literate Iranians. This atmosphere of modern inquiry formed a backdrop for the development of Bahá'í ideas. The Bahá'í faith differs from mainstream Islam, not only in recognizing further prophets after Muhammad and adhering to a new, liberalized religious law, but also in recognizing the truth of South Asian and other non-Abrahamic faiths and in accepting the general validity of the existing Bible along with other holy books for use as scripture. This theological pluralism differs from syncretism in that the various religions are affirmed in their world-historical specificity from the standpoint of a new and independent tradition, with its own distinctive rituals, laws and theology. Bahá'ís hold that the archetypes, spiritual experiences and ethical expressions underlying the various religions are held in common, not the specific, varying details of liturgy, history or doctrine.
Here I wish to analyze two texts by Bahá'u'lláh that speak of the unity of the High Prophets, and propose to focus especially on their poetics, that is on the literary and semiotic techniques the author employs to make this idea plausible. By semiotics I mean the study of signs, in the sense that anything that can substitute for something else in human communication is a sign. I propose that these methods can make sense of the seeming paradoxes in this tradition of religious discourse. Each text, theorists suggest, is shaped by its own deep structures, the specific context of its enunciation, and the culture within which it is expressed. Enunciation has to do with the way the text is shaped by authors and their situation in life, and the genre they employ. Cultural structures have more to do with paradigms and systems of culturally-specific signs. Before proceeding to an analysis of the deep structures of the texts under consideration, then, we shall have to consider the other systems of signification that shape them.
Let us begin with enunciation, the setting-in-life of Bahá'u'lláh when he wrote. Shi`ite Islam put a special emphasis on eschatological and millenarian expectations, and a wave of conviction swept through the Shi`ite world early in the nineteenth century that the Islamic Mahdi or messiah would arise in 1260 or 1844. Thereafter, according to Muslim belief, figures such as the Imám Husayn (the Prophet's martyred grandson) and Jesus Christ would return before the Resurrection. The schools that expected an imminent advent included the Shaykhís, who excelled in cabalistic speculation. The Shaykhís were named after Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa'i (1753-1826), an Arabian Shi`ite thinker of great originality. His successor, Sayyid Kazim Rashti, died on the first day of 1844, and thereafter a faction of the Shaykhís set out in search of the promised Mahdi. They found him in the person of Sayyid `Alí Muhammad Shírázi, who claimed to be a Báb, or intermediary between the divine and humans. His teachings spread throughout Iran, and by 1849 he may have had 100,000 adherents in a population of about 7 million. He was gradually recognized by his followers as the Mahdi, and finally as a new prophet. The Iranian state had the Báb executed in 1850 as a heretic, and from the late 1840s violent conflicts erupted between Bábís and conservative Shi`ites, leading to state intervention and the crushing of the new religion.
Among the Báb's teachings had been that in the future, another messianic figure would arise, "He whom God would make manifest." This further messianism accorded with popular Shi`ite belief that the advent of the Mahdi would be followed by that of Jesus Christ and Imám Husayn, and so the Bábí community seethed with adventist expectations. In 1852 a faction of Bábís in Tehran attempted to assassinate Nasiru'd-Din Sháh in revenge for the Báb's execution. The state retaliated with a country-wide pogrom against the Bábís. Bahá'u'lláh, who had emerged as a prominent Bábí, was arrested but cleared of any complicity in the plot, and allowed to go into exile in nearby Baghdad. In this period Bahá'u'lláh underwent mystical experiences that led him gradually to see himself as the archetypal return of Husayn and of Christ, and as the promised one of the Báb. Since further messianic speculation focused on the Islamic year 1280/1863-64, Bahá'u'lláh kept a messianic secret for over a decade. In the meantime, most Bábís recognized Bahá'u'lláh's younger half-brother Mírzá Yahyá Nuri, called "Subh-i Azal" as their leader, though Bahá'u'lláh came to function as the open director and guide of the community because of Azal's almost paranoid reclusiveness. Azal, although never arrested, chose to follow his brother into banishment.
Finally Bahá'u'lláh himself put forward claims to be the One whom God would make Manifest, in 1863. In the same year he was exiled from Baghdad to Istanbul, and thence to Edirne (Adrianople) in Rumelia. From Edirne, Bahá'u'lláh sent many letters back to the Bábís in Iran, declaring himself their promised one. Most Bábís then became Bahá'ís, or followers of Bahá'u'lláh, deserting the uncharismatic Azal. The Ottomans further exiled Bahá'u'lláh to Akká (St. Jean d'Acre) in Ottoman Syria in 1868, where he died in 1892. He spent the last 24 years of his life creating original laws, principles and institutions of his new religion. These included the unity of God, the unity of the world religions, the unity of humankind, and the need for a world language and a form of global governance. He also advocated parliamentary democracy in the absolutist Middle East, urged disarmament and greater state spending on education and the poor, and argued for the implementation of collective security, wherein if any country attacked another, the rest of the world's nations would intervene to defeat the aggressor.
I am concerned in this paper to analyze two texts written by the founder of the Bahá'í faith, Bahá'u'lláh, wherein the unity of the prophets or `Manifestations of God' (mazâhir-i ilâhî) is asserted. The striking thing about the longer of these two texts is not its overt philosophy of religion, but its literary qualities, and it is upon these that I wish to concentrate. I believe that the literary character of Bahá'u'lláh's writing, his use of presentation and narrative, of point of view, of techniques such as apostrophe, and a rich Persian heritage of allegory and metaphor, help make his pluralist religious doctrines plausible to readers. I also attempt to show that an analysis of the structure of his imagery, of the oppositions and their mediation, can further make sense of his writings on this issue. A principle like the unity of religions, which discounts the differences in the doctrines of the religions, it seems to me, must be investigated by employing a different sort of logic than the standard Aristotelian sort, in which a proposition has only one valid meaning, and in which surface contradictions between two propositions invalidate one or the other. Theologian Daniel Patte has referred to syllogistic reasoning as the "logic of argumentation," and has contrasted it to the sort of thought processes anthropologists like Claude Lévi-Strauss have found in myths. I will term this latter sort of reasoning "spiritual logic," and find its main attributes to consist in a concern with symbolic structures and dialectical thinking, which, as the poststructuralists have pointed out, may be rather more semantically unstable than Lévi-Strauss at first envisioned. With Edmund Leach and many other anthropologists, I accept that spiritual logic occurs in the literate world-religions as well as in mythology. I shall argue below that by understanding the workings of spiritual logic, and of rhetorical and poetical devices, we can better understand Bahá'u'lláh's ideas on the unity of the High Prophets and other, lesser holy figures, whom he collectively terms the Manifestations of God. Clearly, this discussion is premised upon the idea that among the things that makes sacred history more meaningful than secular history is the operation upon it of spiritual logic. Sacred biography, such as Genesis on Abraham or Mark on Jesus, probably has a historical basis, but the mere fact of general historicity cannot explain the continuing existential salience of those biographies for people of faith throughout the world. Spiritual logic constitutes a meaningful way of thinking about those biographies.
Cosmology, Performance and the Identity of the Divine Intermediaries
When it approaches a sequence of events or narrative, the logic of argumentation demands that difference be considered significant. A police detective will deduce that a small thin man did not commit a particular murder because the footprints in the mud at the scene of the crime were those of a heavy-set man. In mythology, folk tales, and other sorts of imaginative discourse, things are still distinguished from one another. But the meaning of any element is not absolute, having rather to do with its relationship to other parts of the story. The implication here is that in different tellings of a meaningful story, one could substitute one element for another without necessarily altering the meaning of the tale. The Russian student of folk tales Vladimir Propp argued that the functions of characters remain stable in a tale, no matter which character fulfilled them. Thus, in a plot element such as "the witch kidnaps the king's daughter," the teller of tales could easily substitute "dragon" or another supernatural being for "witch," without substantially altering the plot. The other characters could likewise be changed, for instance, "wife" instead of "daughter." The function, in this conception, consists of the character's action viewed in relation to its importance to the plot.
Bahá'u'lláh's writings on sacred history, I would argue, can similarly be studied in terms of their formal structure. The biography of each prophet as he tells it, in other words, contains similar plot functions. This is not to say that he saw these prophets' biographies as fictional, or that his writings about them form a sort of fiction. Literary theory in the past two decades has in any case increasingly questioned the absolute distinction between fictional and nonfictional discourse, and writers like Hayden White have argued that even historical narrative tends to be cast in the form of literary tropes. Certainly, the telling of stories about prophets and holy figures constituted a well-defined set of genres in Shi`ite Iran, with their own conventions and literary traditions.
The unity of the religions and the unity of the High Prophets are very much linked in Bahá'u'lláh's thought. He conceives of religion as revealed religion, but sees the ritual
and doctrinal aspects of revelation as relative to the age in which they were revealed, subject to abrogation at a later age. This lapsing of the divine law associated with the religion, however, does not imply that the religion has been abrogated or become invalid as a means of approaching the Real, though the idea of progressive revelation suggests that more recent religions are more suited to the age than earlier ones. He wrote
There can be no doubt whatever that the peoples of the world, of whatever race or religion, derive their inspiration from one heavenly Source, and are the subjects of one God. The difference between the ordinances under which they abide should be attributed to the varying requirements and exigencies of the age in which they were revealed. All of them, except a few which are the outcome of human perversity, were ordained of God, and are a reflection of His Will and Purpose.
Although Bahá'u'lláh himself spoke primarily of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Babism and the Bahá'í faith itself, it is easy to see how his son and successor, `Abdu'l-Bahá' (1844-1921), extended this philosophical framework to encompass the religions of Buddha and Krishna, as well.
Bahá'u'lláh's ideas about the nature of time and cosmology also form an important backdrop to his conception of the unity of the Manifestations of God. Ideas about time, after all, have been wrought up with conceptions of being since at least the Greeks. Bábís and Bahá'ís believed in a doctrine of the eternal return, which differs in essential aspects from the similar theory propounded by Friedrich Nietzche, and rather resembles that of Plotinus. Bahá'u'lláh believed that the basic drama of the advent of a prophetic figure, his preaching, then his rejection and persecution, and finally the triumph of his religion, was reenacted from millennium to millennium. In each instance the prophetic figure constituted a manifestation of the Logos (Kalimátu'lláh or Word of God). The Báb had likewise seen each of the High Prophets as "Manifestations of the Primal Will," the Primal Will being synonymous with the Logos or Neoplatonic Universal Intellect. This Bábí-Bahá'í idea of the eternal return differed from that of Nietzche insofar as it primarily concerned sacred history, and insofar as it allowed for progress. Nevertheless, in this periodically restaged holy drama, functions do recur in the Proppian sense.
Bahá'u'lláh believed that that each new revelation represented both an advance upon, and a working-out of themes in, the religious civilization that preceded it. This idea of progress introduces linearity into Bahá'í ideas of time. A cyclical view of history as recurring patterns is common in South Asian traditions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, whereas most Abrahamic religions of the Near East have had a linear conception of history, with a beginning, a middle and an end. Theologian Mark C. Taylor, however, has questioned the absoluteness of this distinction:
It is, of course, common to distinguish interpretations of time by juxtaposing the metaphors of circle and line. Frequently it is argued that in the East time is viewed as a circle in which beginning and end coincide. In the West, by contrast, time tends to be regarded as a linear process in which the end surpasses the beginning . . . Any facile opposition between circular and linear views of time, however, obscures important similarities that these two perspectives share. Both circle and line are forms of closure and figures of plenitude that serve as totalizing metaphors.
The Bábí and Bahá'í schema reinforces Taylor's point about the falseness of this dichotomy by combining a cyclical with a linear view, producing something like a spiral or W.B. Yeats's "gyre." This conception of time as it operates in sacred history underpins the Bahá'í idea of progressive revelation.
Since we are here concerned with the identity of the prophets, it is the cyclical aspect of sacred history with which we must primarily deal. Bahá'u'lláh in his Book of
Certitude made the argument that some verses of the Qur'an supported the Bábí idea of the eternal return, insofar as they addressed the unbelievers of the Prophet's own day as identical to those who rejected Moses or Jesus, lambasting his Arab contemporaries for the sins of Jesus's persecutors six centuries earlier (Qur'an 2:89):
Strive therefore to comprehend the meaning of "return" which hath been so explicitly revealed in the Qur'an itself, and which none hath as yet understood. What sayest thou? If thou sayest that Muhammad was the "return" of the Prophets of old, as is witnessed by this verse, His Companions must likewise be the "return" of the bygone Companions, even as the "return" of the former people is clearly attested by the text of the above-mentioned verses.
The Bábí-Bahá'í conception of eternal return differs considerably from the idea of reincarnation. In Hinduism reincarnation involves the return of an individual soul in another body. The Bahá'í scriptures, however, assert that the individual soul, once having left the earthly plane, never returns but rather progresses through other planes of existence toward God. What, then, "returns?" This tradition of thought sees the individual person as a conjuncture of essence and attributes, and sees a constellation of attributes as representing something like psychological archetypes that recur in later personalities. The Bábís and Bahá'ís placed great emphasis on the idea of the eternal return of these personality-archetypes. The Bahá'í view of sacred history also has elements in common with the formalist conception of narrative functions. The early Bahá'ís in the Middle East conceived of the roles in the basic prophetic drama rather like functions, in which various actors could be substituted without changing the basic lines of the story. Not only did Jesus step into the role once played by Moses, and then Muhammad into that once played by Jesus, but their companions and disciples also represented a return of previous supporters of the prophets, and their enemies recur, as well.
Nor is this language of script and theater and dramatis personae anachronistic when we speak of Iranian religious ideas during the nineteenth century. At the beginning of that century, a custom grew up of staging popular dramatic performances that depicted the suffering of holy figures, rather like the passion plays produced in medieval Europe. These dramas consisted of story cycles, which included the tale of Abraham's near-sacrifice of his eldest son and the betrayal of Joseph by his brothers, as well as purely Islamic and Shi`ite themes. The emergence of this dramatic form may have made it easier for popular audiences to imagine the "return" of holy figures from the past, and so aided the spread of the Bahá'í kerygma.
An appreciation of these Shi`ite passion plays requires a basic knowledge of controversial events and personalities in early Islam, for the "Karbala paradigm," as anthropologist Michael M.J. Fischer called it, constitutes a key element in cultural system that helped shape both the Muslim and the Bahá'í texts under discussion. Fischer defines a "paradigm" as a story that could include cosmology, history and even everyday problems, along with a background contrast, all joined to ritual or physical drama. These elements are eminently present in the founding narratives of Shi`ite Islam and their later commemoration. The Prophet Muhammad, although he began with a weak social position and faced much persecution, put together an impressive religious and political coalition after C.E. 622, and by the time of his death in Western Arabia in 632 ruled over a nascent theocratic state. For the Shi`ite branch of Islam, however, after this decade of triumph the Muslims took a wrong turn. The Prophet died without leaving a will or making any public, iron-clad assignment of political and spiritual authority after his passing. Some Arab clans, especially in his adopted city of Medina, favored recognition of Muhammad's cousin `Alí (who had married the Prophet's daughter, Fatimah) as his successor. This position, however, proved a minority one, with the more powerful Meccan clans supporting as caliphs tribal elders who had early on adopted Islam, such as Abu Bakr, then `Umar, and then `Uthman. Only when `Uthman was assassinated did the Muslim community finally turn to the House of the Prophet for a caliph, electing `Alí in C.E. 656. Soon thereafter a virtual civil war broke out within the early Islamic empire, which already stretched from North Africa to Iran, between partisans of `Alí and the murdered third caliph `Uthman's clansmen (the Umayyads, then based in Syria). In C.E. 661 `Alí himself was assassinated by a disaffected follower and power passed to the Umayyads for a century.
`Ali's eldest son Hasan acquiesced in this tragedy for the prophet's House by retiring from politics and accepting an Umayyad stipend. But in C.E. 680 his younger brother Husayn attempted to stage an `Alid uprising against the Umayyads in Iraq on the plain of Karbala. Umayyad troops streamed out to put the rising down, a task they brutally and successfully accomplished, after a siege of Husayn's camp (which included women and children). The would-be leader or "Imám," Husayn, was killed, along with many of his supporters and relatives, and his head was said to have been brought back to the Umayyad king on an upraised spear. Since Husayn was a grandson of Muhammad, and older Muslims had seen him as a toddler dangling on the Prophet's knees, his killing and the massacre of his supporters shocked many in the Islamic world. Supporters of the House of the Prophet, who eventually became known as the Shi`ites (literally, `partisans'), saw Husayn as a martyr whose blood was redemptive. They gradually developed mourning rituals to commemorate Husayn's martyrdom on the Tenth of the month of Muharram. From the fifteenth century C.E. the ritual reading of a series of elegies on each of the first ten days of Muharram became popular. Especially after the Shi`ite revival of the sixteenth century (when Shi`ite-ruled states were established in Iran, and in Golconda, Bijapur, Ahmadnagar and Kashmir in India), such ritual lamenting became firmly institutionalized in the Islamic East, taking the form both of prose and poetry. As noted above, in nineteenth century Iran a popular theater developed around the themes of Husayn's rising and martyrdom, though the dramatic cycles often included stories of previous prophets such as Abraham and Joseph, the death of Muhammad himself, and the martyrdom of `Ali, as well. This Shi`ite performance tradition, I would argue, already contains implicitly the message of the functional unity of the holy figures whose lives were dramatized.
All this background has been necessary to appreciate the two texts by Bahá'u'lláh to which I now wish to return, wherein the unity is made explicit. The specific enunciatory context for one of the texts was Bahá'u'lláh's declaration of himself to the Bábís as the promised one of the Báb in the year 1280/1863-64. Among the broader cultural structures that inform these Bahá'í texts are a cyclical conception of sacred time and the Persian performance tradition of passion plays that commemorated the suffering, not only of Imám Husayn, but of prophets such as Abraham, Joseph and Muhammad.
Genre and Transformation
The first text that I wish to discuss, the Súrah of Blood (Súrat ad-damm) occupies a special position among Bahá'u'lláh's writings, since it was among the first in which he openly announced his mission to the Bábís from Edirne, and may be provisionally dated to winter-spring 1864. He addressed the Súrah of Blood to a close companion then in Iran, Muhammad "Nabíl" Zarandi (d. 1892), saying that the truth could now be revealed after remaining hidden for twenty years. Prominent supporters of Bahá'u'lláh such as Nabíl typically shared their letters from him with other local Bábís, in hopes of attracting them to the Bahá'í religion. The initial audience of such texts was thus implicitly the Bábí communities, mainly in Iraq and Iran, which in the 1860s subsisted secretly in view of Qajar and clerical persecution of them as heretics. The Bábís included peasant villagers, and, in urban areas, artisans, intellectuals, and merchants, of both sexes, reflecting the religion's character as a mass movement. Although in 1849 there may have been as many as 100,000 Bábís, by the 1860s persecution had surely reduced their ranks to only a few thousand. In the space of a few years, almost all these Bábís had come over to Bahá'u'lláh's side. Bahá'í emissaries shared his epistles with other Iranians, as well, and between Bahá'u'lláh's initial declaration in 1863 and his death in 1892, tens of thousands of converts embraced the new religion, coming from the ranks of mainline Shi`ism as well as from the Shaykhí, Jewish and Zoroastrian communities. By 1900 there were between 50,000 and 100,000 Bahá'ís in Iran, which then had a population of around 9 million. Bahá'u'lláh's letters were copied out and circulated by professional copyists, were chanted aloud by the literate in the community for the illiterate, and, around 1890, began being printed for wider distribution by Bahá'ís in Bombay.
Bahá'u'lláh had received a visit from Nabíl in Edirne not too long before the Súrah of Blood was composed, and he bade his disciple to travel from city to city in Iran spreading news that Bahá'u'lláh was the promised one of the Báb. Bahá'u'lláh asserts this station in two ways. First, he speaks of himself as the archetypal return of the Báb himself. Second, he uses a literary device to call up an image of himself as the stricken Imám Husayn, dying upon the plain of Karbala, speaking his last words and revealing his station. As noted above, Shi`ites commonly expected the return of the Imám Husayn after the rise of the Mahdi, so most Bábís would have immediately recognized an implicit claim in this imagery. Bahá'u'lláh was able to play on a very rich repertoire of literary competencies in his audience, given the centrality of the lament for Imám Husayn as a genre in Iranian and Shi`ite culture. He was also able to create surprise and suspense by occasionally contradicting the various expectations his use of the genre created.
Bahá'u'lláh employs the martyrdom of Husayn at Karbala as an extended metaphor for his own imprisonment and persecution in Ottoman Europe. He tells Nabíl that if friends in Iran should ask about Bahá'u'lláh, he should inform them that he, Nabíl, had departed out of the prison city (Edirne) while Husayn was lying on the ground, the knee of the enemy on his chest and a sword raised above his head. Nabíl is depicted as bending his ear to listen to the fallen Imám, whose heart-rending plaint breaks the heart of God himself. Husayn pleads that he has revealed verses redolent of God, just as Joseph's coat conveyed the smell of the young man to his father, Jacob, after his kidnapping. If people find the perfume of the divine in these verses, they should not rise up to kill him. Husayn/Bahá'u'lláh proclaims that he kept a messianic secret for twenty years, but that God had opened his lips, and he now called upon the Bábís to recognize him as the spiritual return of the Báb himself.
The hero pauses, overtaken with weakness from his war wounds. Then the dying Husayn opens his lips and addresses God in the following words:
Praise be to Thee, O Lord My God, for the wondrous revelations of Thy inscrutable decree and the manifold woes and trials Thou hast destined for Myself. At one time Thou didst deliver me into the hands of Nimrod; at another Thou hast allowed Pharaoh's rod to persecute Me. Thou, alone, canst estimate, through Thine all-encompassing knowledge and the operation of Thy Will, the incalculable afflictions I have suffered at their hands. Again Thou didst cast Me into the prison-cell of the ungodly, for no reason except that I was moved to whisper into the ears of the well-favored denizens of Thy Kingdom an intimation of the vision with which Thou hadst, through Thy knowledge, inspired Me, and revealed to Me its meaning through the potency of Thy might. And again Thou didst decree that I be beheaded by the sword of the infidel. Again I was crucified for having unveiled to men's eyes the hidden gems of Thy glorious unity, for having reavealed to them the wondrous signs of Thy sovereign and everlasting power. How bitter the humiliations heaped upon Me, in a subsequent age, on the plain of Karbilá! How lonely did I feel amidst Thy people! To what a state of helplessness was I reduced in that land! Unsatisfied with such indignities, my persecutors decapitated Me, and, carrying aloft My head from land to land paraded it before the gaze of the unbelieving multitude, and deposited it on the seats of the perverse and faithless. In a later age, I was suspended, and My breast was made a target to the darts of the malicious cruelty of My foes. My limbs were riddled with bullets and My body was torn asunder. Finally, behold how, in this Day, My treacherous enemies have leagued themselves against Me, and are continually plotting to instill the venom of hate and malice into the souls of Thy servants. With all their might they are scheming to accomplish their purpose . . . Grievous as is My plight, O God, My Well-Beloved, I render thanks unto Thee, and My Spirit is grateful for whatsoever hath befallen Me in the path of Thy good-pleasure.
Let us consider some formal aspects of this text first, before proceeding to questions of its deep structures and archetypal logic, beginning with a distinction critics have made between direct presentation and mediated narration. Direct presentation is primarily a first-person, present-tense discourse, a subjective articulation that makes evaluative judgments. Mediated narration, on the other hand, tends to be third-person and set in the past and represents itself as an objective statement that creates a universe of events and persons who are, from that point of view, real. This text combines elements of both direct presentation and mediated narration, insofar as it alludes to a series of stories, and the tense is for the most part the past. But the narrative voice is first-person, and the final scene (Bahá'u'lláh's own persecution) is set in the present. Of course, all complex discourse involves both subjective enactment and a past-tense narration; few novels, for instance, can avoid having elements of both. But here the mixture of direct presentation and mediated narration appears to represent a deliberate attempt to obliterate the normal boundaries the audience would erect between past and present and between various divine emissaries in sacred history. The use of the first-person point of view, and its maintenance across the entire range of protagonists aims, as with all use of point of view to "impose a story world upon a reader (or listener)." All the prophets or holy figures here are but manifestations of a single archetype, the Logos or Word of God, and speak with the same first-person voice. Sacred history thus becomes a form of autobiography, since the Logos itself is represented as speaking from the latest locus of its manifestation, Bahá'u'lláh. Moreover, the first-person voice shatters the conventions of the stylized lament for Husayn, which had always been presented as third-person, objective, mediated narration, but here becomes subjective enactment.
The genre here employees the conventions of the traditional prose lament for the martyred Imám Husayn (often codified in books known as Ten Sessions [Dah Majlis]), one chapter to be read on each of the first ten days of the holy month of Muharram). Any nineteenth-century Muslim audience east of the Red Sea knew and understood the conventions of this sort of lament. Why, however, should Bahá'u'lláh have chose to declare his status as a messianic prophet through the stylized mourning for Imám Husayn? It will help to think about, not only what a genre is, but what it does: "A genre, we might say, is a conventional function of language, a particular relation to the world which serves as norm or expectation to guide the reader in his encounter with the text." We most often know when we begin to read a work whether it is a tragedy or a comedy, and our foreknowledge of its genre influences the way we read it by raising specific expectations in us.
This set of expectations is a powerful tool in the hands of authors who recognize its working, for they can employ the genre to make the discourse seem natural. Naturalization through genre means that what might otherwise appear to be strange or deviant is, by being cast in a particular literary form, made to seem expected. Bahá'u'lláh's assertion that he was the promised one of the Báb, the very voice of all the previous prophets and holy figures, would have struck many prosaic nineteenth-century Middle Easterners as strange and unacceptable. The appeal to the genre of the lament for Husayn is a means of disarming that feeling of strangeness, and of naturalizing his message. On the other hand, as noted above, some features of the text (such as the use of the first person and of allegory) deliberately break the conventions of the genre for effect.
The identification with Husayn functioned at the level of millenarian expectations, as well. In Shi`ite culture the Imám Husayn would supernaturally return after the appearance of the Mahdi. Since Bahá'u'lláh's Bábí contemporaries believed that the Báb represented the coming of the Mahdi, many expected the Imám Husayn himself to return soon. By the mid-1860s the Báb had been dead for fifteen years and his religion had been massively persecuted. Many yearned for the advent of Husayn to set things aright. Finally, since we are dealing with a culture were names were often felt to be fate, it should be remembered that Bahá'u'lláh's given name was Husayn `Ali. If, for his partisans, "Husayn" evoked the return of the martyred Imám, "`Ali" referred to the return of the Báb himself.
Another formal aspect of this text is its use of apostrophe. Here, the character turns aside from the person or audience to whom she or he was speaking and addresses someone else, often an invisible or supernatural presence such as a spirit, a muse, or a god, and literary theorist Jonathan Culler has discussed this gesture in an insightful manner. The text of the Súrah of Blood has the general form of a letter to Nabíl Zarandi, something that is not immediately apparent because I have not quoted its opening passages. But the scene Bahá'u'lláh conjures up, of Husayn's martyrdom and plaint to God, has the form of an apostrophe. Bahá'u'lláh inserts Nabíl into this dramatic scene, having him bend down to listen to Husayn's dying words. But Husayn does not address Nabíl. He gazes skyward and delivers an apostrophe to God, reminding him of the suffering he has imposed on the
Eternal Prophet. The speaker thereby stresses his special relationship to the divine for Nabíl, the real audience. Just as a poet achieves a new identity by addressing nature, pointing to his ability to evoke the images of nature's power, so the prophet reconstitutes himself as a visionary by calling upon God in the presence of humans.
The use of apostrophe also helps accomplish another key aim of this passage, the annihilation of time. We have already seen this feature at work in the mixing of presentation and narrative. The text asserts the identity of all the prophets and holy figures mentioned. These persons, of course, lived centuries apart, and their temporal discontinuity makes it difficult for the intellect to accept their unity. One of apostrophe's main features, stressed by Culler, is that it locates all the persons and things addressed in the time of the address, thus resisting the temporal dimension of story sequences. Every person and event referred to in the apostrophe is simultaneously present within the address. Lyric poets use this technique to establish timelessness. Though apostrophe Bahá'u'lláh obliterates the millennia separating Abraham from himself, revealing diverse holy figures to be facets of the same gem.
Let us turn now to the structure of the text. As noted, all of these events are narrated in the first person, emphasizing the essential identity of the patriarchs, prophets, and holy figures referred to. The order is generally but not consistently chronological. This lament enumerates a set of oppositions, each of which is a transformation of the preceding one. If we list them as they appear successively in the discourse, they are:
|God gives|| - ||Nimrod|| - ||power to oppress|| - ||Abraham|
|God gives|| - ||Pharaoh|| - ||power to oppress|| - ||Moses|
|God|| - ||imprisons|| - ||Joseph|
|God|| - ||beheads|| - ||John|
|God|| - ||crucifies|| - ||Jesus|
|people|| - ||behead|| - ||Husayn|
|people|| - ||execute|| - ||the Báb|
|enemies|| - ||persecute|| - ||Bahá'u'lláh|
Several questions arise from this way of looking at the text. First, why is the lament directed against God, and why is he depicted as the archetypal persecutor? Bahá'u'lláh appears to blame God for his sufferings in his advent as each of these holy figures, since God allowed each nemesis to persecute him. God is said to have given Abraham into Nimrod's hands, and Moses into Pharaoh's (in Muslim tradition, as in the Jewish Haggadah, Nimrod persecuted Abraham.) In some instances the persecution is stated as having been carried out by God himself. God cast Joseph into prison, and decreed John the Baptist's beheading. The wording implies that Egyptian officials and Herod were only his tools. The Arabic text also blames God for "lifting me up upon the cross" (arfa`tani ila as-salib). The persecutions of Husayn, the Báb, and Bahá'u'lláh are active, but the divine hand in them is not specifically referred to and the oppressors are not directly named. This increasing vagueness allows the depiction of oppressors of the later figures in general and therefore archetypal terms. Perhaps the later generality also derives from the difficulty in naming just one foe for Bahá'u'lláh, who was persecuted by the Iranian and Ottoman governments, the clergy of both major branches of Islam, and by Bábí partisans of his half-brother Azal, who rejected his claim to be the promised one of the Báb. Or maybe specifically naming his powerful persecutors would have rendered his letter to Nabíl too dangerous for circulation. The structure of this text suggests that all persecutors of holy figures can be assimilated to Pharaoh, regardless of their historical identity.
Surprisingly, at the end of the lament, Bahá'u'lláh thanks God for whatever he decreed, recalling the religious ideas in the Book of Job, wherein the righteous individual is deliberately tested by God, who allows the wicked devil to persecute him. In order to survive the test, the righteous man must remain devoted to God even when his fate turns bitter. Not too long before, in 1863, Bahá'u'lláh had written a tablet or treatise that expatiated upon the Job paradigm. Although in other, similar passages, such prophetic suffering is seen as a means of salvation for believers, here the theme of one suffering for many does not emerge.
The remarkable feature of this text, and the reason I have begun with it, is the poetic identification of all these prophets and holy figures with one another and with Bahá'u'lláh himself. They are given just one voice, all through history, from Abraham to Bahá'u'lláh. Their life stories, of suffering and persecution, however different in specifics, are presented as fitting a universal paradigm. God gives it to a righteous man to reveal holy verses, or to interpret divine visions, to the people. This demonstration of a supernatural gift provokes powerful enemies to oppress the prophet, a tyranny which God is said to allow or even command. The oppression ends in martyrdom or imprisonment for the holy figure (deprivation of life and deprivation of freedom being equivalent here). The enemies named or implied are for the most part kings. Nimrod opposed Abraham, Pharaoh attacked Moses, Herod had John the Baptist beheaded, Yazid the Umayyad monarch ordered his armies to put down Husayn's rising in C.E. 680, and Nasiru'd-Din Sháh (r. 1848-1896), sovereign of nineteenth-century Iran, presided over governments that executed the Báb and exiled Bahá'u'lláh. The basic opposition here therefore lies between secular domination and prophetic authority. Questions remain unanswered on the surface. Why, exactly, does the advent of a prophet in a land enrage the monarch and his subjects, and why are the kings seen as instruments of God's will when they oppress the holy figure?
This text answers such questions only peripherally. Joseph is represented as saying that he was incarcerated "for no reason except that I was moved to whisper into the ears of the well-favored denizens of Thy Kingdom an intimation of the vision with which Thou hadst, through Thy knowledge, inspired Me, and revealed to me its meaning through the potency of Thy might." Joseph merely recounted to those who believed in the unknowability of God a small portion of the vision God had granted him. The only other causal statement occurs in connection with Jesus. He was crucified "for having unveiled to men's eyes the hidden gems of Thy glorious unity." The prophet arouses opposition because he brings visions from the world of the divine, and because he affirms the unity of God. He bridges the barrier between the natural world and the supernatural through his revelation. This establishing of a connection between two planes of being, of course, is the anomaly. The world of God and the world of human beings are separate, and to bridge the two is unnatural. Whoever does so, the text implies, is punished, both by God and by humans.
The oppression of the prophet mediates the contradiction set up by the irruption through him of the divine into the secular world. That God "commands" the punishment is, perhaps, a theological statement of its inevitability. We find in this passage something more than the testing of the righteous man reminiscent of the Job narrative. The overtone is rather that of Isaiah's suffering servant, or, to draw on another paradigm altogether, Prometheus. For Prometheus in Greek mythology stole the secret of fire from the gods and gave it to human beings. He bridged the divine and human worlds, transferring technology from the one to the other, for which the gods condemned him to eternal suffering. In the Abrahamic religions, the intermediary transfers not material technology but knowledge about the other world that transforms spiritual life. The Abrahamic code is the opposite of the Promethean one. Prometheus steals from the gods against their will, and they directly punish him for bridging the imperishable and the mortal realms. In the Abrahamic religions God deliberately sends the prophet to open a pathway between the two worlds. In Bahá'u'lláh's text, God recognizes that this act will inevitably arouse opposition from human beings, but allows them to mistreat the prophet. He thereby tests the righteousness of the person he has chosen as envoy.
The Job-like test, as intimated above, cannot be the entire answer, however. If God has deliberately sent prophets into the world, why does he essentially decree their torture and death? Here I think we must look at a deep structure, the opposition in the text between the immortal divine world and the perishable earthly one. God exists in a realm of immortality, where death does not exist, whereas humans live in a perishable world. If God sends messengers from his immortal plane into the world of death, the very act is a death sentence. The text suggests that communication between the two worlds requires that an immortal principle such as the Logos or God's Word, become mortal. This paradox is expressed poetically in the text by the statement that Jesus was crucified because he revealed to men knowledge about the nature of God. It was impossible for the Word to communicate to humans without becoming flesh; and having so become, it was condemned to die. God is ultimately responsible for that death and suffering insofar as he commanded the revelation of himself in the mortal world through Jesus and others.
The passage does not openly make clear the reason for which the people, and especially kings, arise to persecute those whom God gives visions and revelations. but the implicit contradiction between heavenly authority and earthly domination seems clear enough. The prophet, as German sociologist Max Weber recognized, claims authority on charismatic and religious bases. He most often, then will come into conflict with the secular bureaucracy and the patrimonial state, which claims worldly domination on rational or traditional grounds. The rising of a prophet necessarily has political implications, since it always involves the assertion of a new, charismatic sort of authority within a society already ordered on traditional or rational bases. Moreover, within the text the persecution by the king of the prophet is a transformation of God's inscrutable decree of suffering for his envoy. Simply by the act of sending the Logos into the human world, God willy-nilly places him in jeopardy. The king punishes the prophet for bringing into his realm an alternative form of authority. On one level, the text presents the king as a transformation (functionally equivalent to) of God, and this helps explain why the passage sometimes says God delivered the holy figure into the tyrant's hands, sometimes says God himself decreed the prophet's death, sometimes refers to the persecutors simply as "enemies" without mentioning God. The structural identity of the persecutor, despite the different meanings attached to each, makes it possible to transform each into the other.
The passage may be diagrammed so:
Basic Opposition. . . . . . . .First Triad . . . . . . . . . . . .Second Triad
World of Immortality
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .The Testing God
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Monarchical Authority
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Martyred Prophets
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Prophetic Authority
.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Logos made Mortal
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Mortal Humans
World of Death
We begin with the central contradiction between the imperishable world of God and the realm of death. The paradox is not made explicit in this text, but can be extrapolated from it. This implicit contradiction is first encountered in a reformulation, in which the Logos or prophetic intermediary bridges the two worlds. Thus, we have a personal God, his people, and, between them, the High Prophets. These prophets partake of the divine insofar as they have visions and knowledge of the nature of God. But they partake of the human world insofar as they can, unlike God, be persecuted, imprisoned, or killed. They thus mediate between the two realms. God is depicted as testing or assaying a pure being by sending him from his plane into that of bloodthirsty human beings, who persecute him.
The triad of testing God, suffering prophet, and mortal humans is now restated and transformed into another triad. Here it is said that kings oppress the prophets. This statement has the same structure as the image of the testing God, but carries a slightly different message. It conveys rather the contradiction between secular domination and prophetic authority, a contradiction mediated by the prophet's imprisonment or death. Of course, the ability of human beings to persecute the emissaries of God, despite the special links of the latter with the divine, in itself poses a contradiction. Explaining why the messiah was put to death rather than coming to power was a major apologetic task of early Christian apologetics. Bahá'u'lláh also addressed the issue of why the Báb, as the Mahdi or promised one of Islam, was executed instead of establishing a Bábí state. First, he averred that "sovereignty" refers to spiritual authority rather than actual political domination, and that genuine sovereignty is achieved by such figures in the long run, as their religions become established. But this is a rational argument; the text at hand uses the oxymoronic figure (combining two contradictory images) of the murdered prophet, the betrayed messiah, precisely in order to synthesize the contradictory images of the royal scepter and the prophetic staff.
The text speaks not about one prophet, but about them all. It is concerned to emphasize the structural and spiritual unity of all the messengers of God who have appeared in sacred history, as well as (in this regard) of the minor prophets and the Imáms who followed them. They have all suffered from the same set of paradoxes, and are in metaphorical terms ultimately identical. For this reason Bahá'u'lláh conjures up the image of Imám Husayn, lying half-dead on Karbala's arid and bloodstained plain. The dying Imám speaks of himself as Abraham, Moses, Joseph, John and Jesus all of whom came before him as well as identifying himself with the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh, who arose nearly twelve hundred years later. The logic of rational argumentation would have to deny any such identification. These were all specific, historical personalities, each with his particular biography and prophetic message, around some of whom discrete religions have grown up. In religious terms, however, not only had the Qur'an already identified many of these figures as prophets in a single line sent by God, but the Iranian tradition of passion plays and of mourning sermons had further grouped together and bestowed a rhetorical unity on many of these persons. It is to the latter genre that Bahá'u'lláh appeals, employing the logic of spirituality very early in his independent ministry to emphasize his identity with all the prophets and holy figures of the past. By techniques such as apostrophe to God, Bahá'u'lláh emphasized his station as a visionary to his audience, and by employing an unusual combination of first-person narrative and past-tense presentation, he aimed at deemphasizing diachrony (linear time) in favor of synchrony (simultaneity) in sacred history. The casting of prophetic biographies in similar form, with similar structures, further underlined the unity of past messengers of God and founders of religions.
Identity and Sacrifice
Bahá'u'lláh expounded the unity of the holy figures in universal sacred history in more than one manner, with more than one deep-structural message. The passage above focused on the testing and suffering of the prophets, a common theme in Iranian spirituality that dominated passion plays and learned commentary alike. Another theme prominent in these literary genres was redemptive sacrifice, a subject Bahá'u'lláh also addressed. One such passage will allow us to consider, not only a further theme in religious unity, but also how Bahá'í thinkers dealt with the question of discrepancies among scriptural traditions. As noted, Bahá'u'lláh affirmed the textual integrity of the Bible and the Qur'an alike. Whereas most Muslims read the Qur'an as questioning the reality of the Crucifixion, Bahá'u'lláh read the Qur'an in a manner that allowed him to accepted the Gospel accounts in this regard and others. Such differences of doctrine or reading of detail make the religions seem incompatible with one another from the point of view of the logic of argumentation. Spiritual logic, concentrating on structures, archetypes and symbols rather than on surface detail, can devalue such differences.
The story of God's command to Abraham that he sacrifice his eldest son, Isaac, then finally granting him a reprieve has gripped the religious imagination of the Abrahamic traditions for at least three and perhaps as many as four thousand years. It has been read in myriad ways, from the older Hegel's depiction of Abraham as a symbol of the alienated state of believers before the advent of Christ, to Kierkegaard's portrayal of him as the "paradigm of authenticity" in Fear and Trembling. An undated text by Bahá'u'lláh that treats the Abraham incident as having to do with redemptive suffering has been printed and translated:
That which thou hast heard concerning Abraham, the Friend of the All-Merciful, is the truth, and no doubt is there about it. The Voice of God commanded Him to offer up Ishmael as a sacrifice, so that His steadfastness in the Faith of God and His detachment from all else but Him may be demonstrated unto men. The purpose of God, moreover, was to sacrifice him as a ransom for the sins and iniquities of all the peoples of the earth. This same honor, Jesus, the Son of Mary, besought the one true God, exalted be his name and glory, to confer upon Him. For the same reason was Husayn offered up as a sacrifice by Muhammad, the Apostle of God.
No man can ever claim to have comprehended the nature of the hidden and manifold grace of God; none can fathom His all-embracing mercy. Such hath been the perversity of men and their transgressions, so grievous have been the trials that have afflicted the Prophets of God and their chosen ones, that all mankind deserveth to be tormented and to perish. God's hidden and most loving providence, however, hath, through both visible and invisible agencies, protected and will continue to protect it from the penalty of its wickedness. Ponder this in thine heart, that the truth may be revealed unto thee, and be thou steadfast in His path.
The Western reader will be struck by the substitution of Ishmael for Isaac here, and this is a matter to which I will return later. First, however, I want to discuss the substance of the text.
Here the identity of Abraham's son, of Jesus and of the Imám Husayn is not stressed so much as the identical meaning of their sacrifices. The genre here is epistolary, and the author uses mediated narration, third-person and past tense. The passage does allude to, and play upon, the resonances of Iranian passion plays and mourning ceremonies for the Imáms. Bahá'u'lláh's point here was not to assert again his own identity with the previous Manifestations of God, and so he did not employ the first person. We must remember that the Súrah of Blood, discussed above, was intended as a proclamation of his station as a High Prophet. The text at hand, written much later, assumes the acceptance of his doctrinal authority among the Bahá'ís. Note that it is not important for the logic of this passage that Jesus and Husayn died, whereas Abraham's son did not, for his story is still about the sacrifice of holy persons.
The reading of these three stories against one another brings out similar elements that otherwise would remain only implicit. Bahá'u'lláh says that Abraham's near-sacrifice functioned both as a demonstration of his steadfastness and detachment and as a ritual offering that expunged human guilt. Genesis depicts Abraham's action only as a test of his commitment to God, and does not indicate that the act had a salvific component. But the form of Abraham's action was precisely that of a ritual sacrifice in which an angry God is appeased. That the God of Genesis accepted the willingness to sacrifice in the place of an actual killing does not affect the structure of the story, which remains centered on sacrifice to avoid divine displeasure. Abraham's biography can plausibly be read as similar in this regard to the Gospel passion narratives about Jesus.
The Apostle Paul, of course, also suggested parallels between Abraham and Christ, comparing Abraham's old age and barrenness to Christ's death on the cross, thus implying that God's bestowal of a son upon him bore a resemblance to Christ's resurrection (Romans 4:19-25). Paul compared the tale of Isaac's birth to the passion and resurrection, whereas Bahá'u'lláh compared the narrative of the divine demand that Abraham sacrifice his son to the same events. Both comparisons depend on transformations. Since the biography of Abraham demonstrates structural transformations within itself, it is not surprising that two authors could compare different episodes in his biography to the same event, Christ's crucifixion and resurrection. For the tales of the miraculous birth of a son to an aged Abraham and of his near-sacrifice already show many functional similarities. An aged couple is to having a son as the divine command of sacrifice is to the sparing of the boy. Bahá'u'lláh then assimilates a third story from universal sacred history, the popular Shi`ite version of Husayn's martyrdom, to the pattern of sacrifice and salvation. Given the Shi`ite conviction that the simple act of weeping for the slain scion of the Prophet's House is enough to bestow eternal salvation, parallels to Christian belief are obvious enough.
This later text, like the Súrah of Blood, draws attention to the structural resemblances in the various meaningful stories in the Abrahamic traditions. Here, however, the identity of the holy figures is stressed through noting the similarity of their sacrificial gestures rather than by giving them all the same voice. Bahá'u'lláh by juxtaposing these stories brings out deep structures that show the narratives to have the same basic plot. The account of Abraham, however much it might be about steadfastness and obedience to God, is also about sacrifice (or in Kierkegaard's phrase, "infinite resignation"). The Prophet is said to have sacrificed his grandson Husayn just as Abraham offered to kill his son. Since Muhammad had been dead for nearly fifty years when Husayn rose against the Umayyads, the phrasing here is the result of seeing history through the patina of spiritual logic. Abraham had a son whom God ordered him to kill; God had a son who asked his father to be sacrificed; Muhammad had a grandson whose martyrdom he could not prevent. This text sees these narrative chains as transformations of one and the same plot. The story in all three of its versions is seen as existentially meaningful, as carrying a message about human perversity and divine forgiveness.
Let us turn now to the problem of the discrepancy between the biblical and the Muslim traditions concerning the identity of the son whom Abraham nearly sacrificed. The Qur'an, it should be noted, does not make the name of the son explicit (37:101-107). Early Muslim commentators divided into two groups, one that accepted the Genesis identification of the son as Isaac, and another that insisted it was Ishmael who was nearly offered up. On the whole, popular Muslim belief tended to side with the faction that identified the sacrifice (dhabih) as Ishmael, and this was certainly the case in the Iranian passion plays. The problem of the differing Judeo-Christian and Muslim versions of the Abraham story were addressed by Bahá'u'lláh's son and successor, `Abdu'l-Bahá. He asserted that every human being is in an existential sense identical with the "sacrifice" (dhabih; that is, the imperiled son of Abraham):
Each is a sacrifice, all are offerings in the divine path, all have hastened to the altar of ecstatic love. For that reason, Isaac and Ishmael are both sacrifices, as are all the servants of God. This is a station that is among the exigencies of divine unity. From this it follows that in the station of divine unity Ishmael and Isaac are considered as one being, and it is permissible to apply the appellation of each to the other. In the Pentateuch, Isaac is specified; in some of the oral reports attributed to the Prophet [Muhammad] Isaac is mentioned, whereas in others it is Ishmael. I earlier referred to Ishmael in accordance with the common parlance of the people, since the name of Ishmael is upon the tongues of the followers of the Qur'an.
From a semiotic point of view, both Isaac and Ishmael as words are simply arbitrary signs, which are given meaning only within a semantic system. The Isaac of Genesis had four primary meanings for believers in the Hebrew Bible: 1) /Isaac/ was the historical personage; 2) /Isaac/ was a son of Abraham; 3) /Isaac/ was a progenitor of the faithful, to whom divine promises were made; and 4) /Isaac/ was an archetypal symbol of the believer's willingness to sacrifice for God. The third meaning, of Isaac as progenitor, posed problems for post-Judaic Abrahamic religions like Christianity and Islam, since it could not in a genealogical sense be carried over into the new faith. The Christians solved this dilemma by seeing themselves as symbolic descendents of Isaac. Some Muslims, especially in the first centuries of Islam, appear to have adopted a similar tactic. But since Arabs believed themselves descended from Ishmael, the most direct manner in which they could appropriate the three meanings of the sign /Isaac/ that had the most existential import was to substitute the sign /Ishmael/ for that of /Isaac/. The acceptance of the story of the Abrahamic sacrifice into an Arab-Islamic milieu required Muslims either to affirm the first, literal meaning of /Isaac/ as historical personage and to allow the tale's existential import to be blunted, or to retain the latter three most meaningful senses of the sign /Isaac/ by crossing it out and substituting the sign /Ishmael/. In the end, at least in the popular imagination, the latter course won out.
`Abdu'l-Bahá's explanation of the discrepancy, which affirms the spiritual validity of both approaches, has a background in Islamic and Iranian mysticism, and it clearly depends upon a philosophical nominalism similar to that which underlies modern formalism, structuralism and semiotics. If we consider the influence of ancient Greek and medieval Muslim nominalist schools, both on Iranian religion and on medieval European ideas, we may be able to delineate a common genealogy for the Bahá'í and for modern semiotic approaches to mythic structures. In both traditions, a sign is not statically attached to an actually existing external referent, but is rather an arbitrary pointing device. In any case, the convergence appears to me striking. French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss has taught us that all important stories exist in several versions, and that all versions of the mythos are equally "true," carrying the same latent message. From this point of view, clearly, the biblical Hebrew telling and the Muslim Arab telling are both "true" versions of the same narrative; it is irrelevant whether Isaac or Ishmael was the intended victim, since each is merely a sign that could be attached to the more basic function, /son/. Substituting one for the other is simply an instance of transformation.
This text raises the problem of multiple versions of stories in the Abrahamic traditions. The redactions of the biblical text have eliminated many alternative versions of these stories, but by expanding our view to non-canonical texts such as the Haggada and to other Abrahamic traditions such as Islam, we can see how other versions have existed. Bahá'u'lláh, in setting this story alongside the passion of Christ and the martyrdom of Husayn, focuses attention on the theme of sacrifice and redemption and thus deemphasizes the genealogical and political implications of the narrative. From the point of view of modern historical scholarship, in any case, the historicity of the account and of the genealogy cannot be proven and would be routinely questioned, for tribal peoples are notorious for manufacturing uniting lineages to foment ideological unity, even where no biological relationship actually existed. The importance of the story for the world religions and for world literature, however, does not depend on the facticity of its biological or historical details (though I do not wish to deny a historical core to the account), but on its spiritual meaning.
Although the basic approach in this passage, of identifying figures in sacred history as transformations of one another, is the same as that in the Súrah of Blood discussed above, the message here has to do with sacrifice and salvation rather than with the testing of the righteous prophet. The story in the Súrah of Blood was told from the point of view of the prophet, whereas here it is told in terms of its significance for the audience, and the discursive technique of mediated narrative is adopted. The juxtaposition of these materials is not as commonplace in Islamic culture as might be assumed. Neither the Ten Sessions nor the passion plays of Iran ever included a dramatization of Jesus's death, since popular Islam in Docetic fashion tended to deny the crucifixion. Bahá'u'lláh nevertheless drew on this Gospel narrative tradition in both of the passages we have discussed. The willingness to see New Testament texts as authoritative scripture marks Bahá'u'lláh's writings on the unity of the Prophets off from the vast majority of writers in the Islamic tradition, and here he employs simple quotation or paraphrase as a technique to underline the unity of the scriptures of the world religions. Anyone who has read large numbers of Islamic theological treatises cannot but be struck by the new intertextuality Bahá'u'lláh establishes in the Book of Certitude and other works, in which verses from the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Qur'an, and the Báb's Bayán, are all quoted as scripture, embedded in Islamic conventions usually reserved solely for Qur'an quotation. The application of widely accepted Iranian literary and religious conventions, such as those concerning the mourning of Husayn and Abraham's sacrifice, to unconventional subject-matter like the crucifixion, or the juxtaposition, elsewhere, of Shi`ite and Christian with Zoroastrian eschatology, allows Bahá'u'lláh to innovate and to extend the range of accepted sacred history while nevertheless naturalizing this gesture for his immediate audience of Iranian Muslims. Bahá'í thinkers such as `Abdu'l-Bahá self-consciously saw alternative textual traditions within the Abrahamic religions as equally valid versions of an underlying mythos, and as transformations almost in a Proppian and Levi-Straussian sense.
I implied above that philosophers of religion when considering issues such as theological pluralism have tended to extract abstract propositions from religious texts and then treat those propositions the same way one would deal with propositions in a mathematics textbook. My argument here has been that such a procedure ignores the literariness, the textuality, of religious texts. It also, of course, ignores essential components of religion such as cultus, history, symbol and affect or right-brain thinking. Here I have asked a different sort of question, not whether religions make conflicting truth-claims in the form of abstract propositions, but rather how religious pluralism is made meaningful to those who believe in it. Providing an answer to this question, I suggest, requires that we pay attention to the poetics of scriptural and theological language in pluralist traditions such as the Bahá'í Faith, some schools of Hinduism and Buddhism, some orders of Sufi Islam, and some Christian and Jewish theologians.
In the first text here discussed, the Tablet of Blood, one of Bahá'u'lláh's earliest declarations of his status as a world-messiah, I found the use of several literary techniques and the appeal to a set of conventions. The Shi`ite passion plays had already established a dramatic tradition of intertextuality, wherein the sacrifice of Abraham, the travels of Joseph, the assassination of `Ali, and the martyrdom of Husayn, were enacted together. The Ten Sessions, or prose readings during the mourning month of Muharram, employed similar conventions to evoke these tragedies of sacred history. Bahá'u'lláh appealed to these conventions by setting a scene in which the dying Husayn lifts up his plaint to the heavens, identifying himself with Abraham, Joseph, Moses, John the Baptist, Jesus, Husayn, the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh. The use of the first person throughout, such that Husayn speaks as Moses and as John the Baptist and as Bahá'u'lláh, contravenes the convention whereby such texts consisted of a mediated narration in the past tense. The introduction of the first person and of a present-tense subjectivity underlined the unity of these prophetic or holy figures. The retelling of their stories so as to emphasize the similar plot structure in each further reinforces the message of unity, as does the reiterated opposition of governmental and hierocratic authority to the charismatic prophet. Finally, the use of apostrophe to God sets Bahá'u'lláh's voice apart, and helps naturalize his claims to a special relationship with the divine, just as a poet's use of this technique helps establish his or her voice as visionary, with extraordinary insight into the natural world.
In a later text, Bahá'u'lláh compared the sacrifices of Abraham, Jesus and Husayn, binding together in this thematic manner an unusual intertextuality of Pentateuch, New Testament and Qur'an. The surface contradictions among these scriptural Abrahamic traditions, such as the dispute over whether Isaac or Ishmael was the sacrifice, was dealt with by Bahá'í leaders such as `Abdu'l-Bahá in a manner greatly resembling the techniques of contemporary students of myth such as Lévi-Strauss. It is asserted that upon the epistemological plane of divine unity (Tawhíd) Isaac and Ishmael are equivalent, since the important thing about the story was Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son. In affirming the crucifixion of Christ, and the inspired character of the New Testament, Bahá'u'lláh broke with the majority Muslim position that the currently existing New Testament is corrupt, and is not identical to the "Evangelium" (Ar. Injil) praised in the Qur'an. The simple literary juxtaposition of the crucifixion with the martyrdom of Husayn, employing the Persian conventions of mourning for the slain Imám, naturalizes this Christian motif within a semiotic system shaped by Iranian Islam. It also implicitly makes the point that the traditional mainstream Muslim rejection of the actually-existing New Testament reflects no obvious qur'anic imperatives.
John Hick's theological pluralism rests upon a Kantian epistemology, wherein he asserts that, just as we can have no direct perception of phenomena, but rather impose preexisting conceptual categories on the world to organize it, so we can have no immediate knowledge of the numinous. Religions, in this view, represent human responses to a numinous sensed but not directly known, and therefore the differences among the religions are owing in part to the use of preexisting cultural categories to conceptualize the holy. Structuralism and semiotics likewise have a Kantian descent, and perhaps for that reason they seem likely to provide means of further elucidating Hick's conclusions. The procedure of abstracting creedal propositions from the various religions and then opposing these to one another represents a "thin" reading of religious meaning. Only by examining underlying mythic structures, and the contours of scriptural and theological textuality, can we begin to make sense of religious pluralism.
- Paul Griffiths and Delmas Lewis, "On Grading Religions, Seeking Truth, and Being Nice to People," Religious Studies 19 (1983): 75-80.
- John Hick, Problems of Religious Pluralism (London: Macmillan, 1985), this point on p. 91; John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989); see also Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Towards a World Theology: Faith and the Comparative History of Religion (London: Macmillan, 1981).
- For the Bahá'í religion, see the excellent survey by Peter Smith, The Bábí and Bahá'í Religions: From Messianic Shi`ism to a World Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987) and Peter Smith and Moojan Momen, "The Bahá'í Faith 1957-1988: A Survey of Contemporary Developments," Religion 19 (1989): 63-91; for the unity of the High Prophets see Christopher Buck, "A Unique Eschatological Interface: Bahá'u'lláh and Cross-Cultural Messianism," in Peter Smith, ed. In Iran: Studies in Bábí and Bahá'í History Volume 3 (Los Angeles: Kalimát Press, 1986), pp. 157-179.
- Shoghi Effendi Rabbani, quoted in William S. Hatcher and J. Douglas Martin, The Bahá'í Faith: The Emerging Global Religion (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1984), p. 85.
- Henri Corbin, En islam iranien, 4 vols. (Paris: Gallimard, 1971-72).
- Shoghi Effendi Rabbani, The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1969 ), p. 58.
- For a late nineteenth century Bahá'í philosophy of the truth of the world religions, see Mírzá Abu'l-Fadl Gulpaygani, Miracles and Metaphors, trans. Juan R. Cole (Los Angeles: Kalimát Press, 1982), pp. 152-157.
- See Abbas Amanat, Resurrection and Renewal: The Making of the Bábí Movement in Iran, 1844-1850 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989), for religious diversity in nineteenth-century Iran.
- See Moojan Momen, "Relativism: A Basis for Bahá'í Metaphysics" in idem., ed., Studies in the Bábí and Bahá'í Religions Volume Five (Los Angeles: Kalimát Press, 1988), pp. 185-217.
- Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics (Bloomington: Indian University Press, 1976).
- David Greenwood, Structuralism and the Biblical Text (Amsterdam: Mouton, 1985), p. 30.
- Amanat, Resurrection and Renewal; see also B. Todd Lawson, "Interpretation as Revelation: The Qur'an Commentary of Sayyid `Alí Muhammad Shírázi, the Báb (1819-1850), in Andrew Rippin, ed. Approaches to the History of the Interpretation of the Qur'an (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 223-253.
- Juan R. Cole, "Bahá'u'lláh and the Naqshbandi Sufis in Iraq, 1854-1856," in Cole and Momen, From Iran East and West: Studies in Bábí and Bahá'í History Volume 3 (Kalimát: Los Angeles, 1984), pp. 1-28.
- Juan R.I. Cole, "Bahá' Alláh," Encyclopaedia Iranica (Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988), 3:422-29, and "Iranian Millenarianism and Democratic Thought in the 19th Century," International Journal of Middle East Studies 24, no. 1 (Feb. 1992), pp. 1-26.
- See Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology (New York: Basic Books, 1963) and his Introduction to a Science of Mythology, trans. John and Doreen Weightman, 4 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983); Daniel Patte, Paul's Faith and the Power of the Gospel: A Structural Introduction to the Pauline Letters (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983); Edmund Leach, Genesis as Myth and Other Essays (London: Jonathan Cape, 1969) and Edmund Leach and D. Alan Ayrock, Structuralist Interpretations of Biblical Myth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983). For the poststructuralist elaboration, see the works of Taylor and Culler, cited below.
- Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale, tr. L. Scott and L. Wagner (Austin: University of Texas Press, rev. ed. 1968), pp. 19-22.
- Hayden White, The Tropics of Discourse (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978).
- Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, trans. Shoghi Effendi Rabbani (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1982), p. 217; Persian trans. Muntakhabati az athar-i hadrat-i Bahá'u'lláh (Hofheim: Bahá'í Verlag, 1984), pp. 141-42.
- Bernd Magnus, Nietzche's Existential Imperative (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978), pp. 61-62.
- The Báb, "Dala'il-i sab`ih," in Muntakhabat-i ayat az athar-i hadrat-i nuqtih-'i ula (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1978), p. 90; trans. Habíb Taherzadeh, Selections from the Writings of the Báb (Haifa: Bahá'í World Centre, 1976), p. 126.
- Mark C. Taylor, Erring: A Postmodern A/theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), pp. 69-70.
- Bahá'u'lláh, The Book of Certitude (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1970), p. 151; Persian text, Kitáb-i Íqán (Cairo: al-Mawsu`at Press, 1900), pp. 126-27.
- `Abdu'l-Bahá', Some Answered Questions, comp. Laura Clifford Barney (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1981, pp. 132-34; Persian text, an-Núr al-abha fi mufawadat `Abdu'l-Bahá (New Delhi: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1983), pp. 95-97.
- See Mehdi Forough, A Comparative Study of Abraham's Sacrifice in Persian Passion Plays and Western Mystery Plays (Tehran: Ministry of Culture and Art, n.d.), wherein a script for the Abraham story is printed.
- Michael M.J. Fischer, Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), pp. 13-27.
- See Peter J. Chelkowski, ed., Ta`ziyeh: Ritual and Drama in Iran (New York: New York University Press, 1979); for types and genres of Shi`ite mourning ceremonies in India, see my Roots of North Indian Shi`ism in Iran and Iraq: Religion and State in Awadh, 1722-1859 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), pp. 92-119.
- Bahá'u'lláh, Athar-i qalam-i a`la, vol. 4 (Tehran: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, B.E. 125/A.D. 1968), pp. 1-15; an account of Nabíl's early Bahá'í missionary work in Iran may be found in Habíbu'lláh Shírázi, "Tarikh-i amriy-i Shíráz," Afnán Library, London; see also Habíb Taherzadeh, The Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh, 4 vols. (Oxford: George Ronald, 1974-1987) 2:236-240.
- Bahá'u'lláh, Athar, 4:8-10; translated in Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, trans. Shoghi Effendi Rabbani (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1982), pp. 88-90.
- Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978), pp. 32, 146; these two elements of discourse are called "narrative" and "story" by some theorists, but Chatman has other uses for the latter word; see Greenwood, Biblical Structuralism, p. 27, summarizing the position of Via.
- Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics and the Study of Literature (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975), pp. 197-99.
- Stephen D. Moore, Literary Criticism in the Gospels (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 26.
- Culler, Poetics, p. 137; see also Umberto Eco, The Role of the Reader (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1979).
- Roland Barthes, S/Z, tr. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974), pp. 22-23.
- Jonathan Culler, The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), pp. 142, 149-52.
- See Bernard Heller, "Namrud," Encyclopaedia of Islam, 4 vols. (London: Luzac, 1913-24, 1st edn).
- Bahá'u'lláh, "Lawh Ayyub," Risalih-'i ayyam-i tis`ih, ed. `Abdu'l-Hamid Ishraq-Khavari (Tehran: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 5th edn, B.E. 129/1973), pp. 262-312.
- Max Weber, Economy and Society, ed. G. Roth and C. Wittich, 2 vols. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), 1: 241-245, 452-57.
- Bahá'u'lláh, Book of Certitude, pp. 106-113; Persian text, pp. 86-88.
- Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death, trans. Walter Lowrie (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970); Mark C. Taylor, Deconstructing Theology (New York and Chico, Ca.: Crossroad Publishing Company and Scholars Press, 1982), chapter 1; the quote is from Taylor, p. 2.
- Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings, pp. 75-76; Muntakhabati az athar, p. 56.
- Cf. Patte, Paul's Faith, pp. 216-221.
- Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, p. 56.
- Suliman Bashear, "Abraham's Sacrifice of his Son and Related Issues," Der Islam 67, no. 2 (1990):243-277. Cf. Foroughi, Abraham's Sacrifice.
- `Abdu'l-Bahá, Makatib, vol. 2 (Cairo: Matba`ah Kurdistan al-`Ilmiyyah, 1330/1912), pp. 328-30.
- Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology and Science of Mythology.
- Geoffrey Parrinder, Jesus in the Qur'an (London: Faber and Faber, 1965); William P. Collins, "Islam's Tahrif: Implications for the Bahá'í Faith," World Order 11, no. 1 (Fall 1976):22-31.
back to Main Index