Miscellaneous historical and doctrinal topicsEssays and Notes on Babi and Bahá'í History
The Persian Dala'il-i Sab`a is a major polemical work of the Bab in which he justifies his religion and his claims to prophethood to an unidentified and evidently sceptical inquirer who is said to have written and asked for proofs of the Bab's mission. There are actually two works with this title, a longer version in Persian and a shorter version in Arabic. The Persian text mentions that it being written in Maku and that four years of the revelation had elapsed, that is in late 1847 or early 1848. The individual for whom the work was written is not known, but the text mentions that he was a student of Sayyid Kazim and had met Mulla Husayn, and the content indicates that he was not a confirmed believer. Azal claimed that the recipient was the Bab's secretary, Sayyid Husayn Yazdi, and Fadil Mazandarani believed that the recipient was Mulla Muhammad-Taqi Harawi, a Shaykhi who was converted by Mulla Husayn in Isfahan but who later abandoned the religion and wrote a refutation of the Bab (Brown, Catalogue 448; Mazandarani, Asrar 4:109). Since the former remained a firm Babi and the latter is referred to as a third person in the text, the matter is still unsettled. (MacEoin, Sources, 85–88.)
The Seven Proofs seems to have been popular among the Babis; after the death of the Bab Mirza Ahmad Katib was able to earn a modest living copying it and the Persian Bayan for the Babis (Nabil, 592), and at least thirteen manuscripts of the Persian text and three of the Arabic text exist in the hands of various Babi and Bahá'í scribes.
The doctrines of the Seven Proofs closely resemble those of the Bayan, which was written about the same time. The chief theme of the work is the standard by which the Bab's claim to prophethood is to be evaluated. He argues that according to the Qur'an, a prophet is to be judged by his verses (ayat), a word that Muslims interpreted as meaning both "writings" and "evidentiary signs." Taking for granted that his own writings were comparable to the Qur'an, he argues that only God can reveal scripture and that the greatest miracle of Muhammad was that no one until the Bab had been able to compose anything comparable to the Qur'an. The verses of God must be greater than the miracles of the prophets of old, since the Qur'an, the only evidentiary miracle of Muhammad, abrogated their religions. Finally, whereas it took Muhammad twenty-three years to reveal the Qur'an, the Bab, who composed his works with extreme rapidity, had revealed works of comparable size in two days and nights, despite his not having had a conventional theological education.
The Bab, arguing against the usual Muslim reluctance to accept the possibility of revelation after Muhammad, points out that the Muslim belief that Islam abrodgated Judaism and Christianity implies the obligation to accept other prophets if they come with inimitable revealed writings. This obligations applies to the Babis as well, who were counselled to accept Him Whom God shall make manifest, the messiah of the Babis, whom Bahá'ís identify with Bahaullah.
The Persian Seven Proofs contains a number of passages of historical importance, the most important being the Bab's explanation of the gradual revelation of his station.
Note: An edition has been published by the Azalis in Iran; Abu al-Fadl Bayda'i, ed., Dala'il-i Sab`a (Tehran: Ism-i A'zam, n.d.). Known MSS are listed in MacEoin, Sources, p. 185. I have used Cambridge Browne F.25 in the preparation of this article. I have not seen the Arabic version. A full French translation is A. L. M. Nicolas, Le Livre des Sept Preuves (Paris, 1902). English selections are found in Bab, Selections. See also Mazandarani, Asrar 4:108–15; Amanat, Resurrection 161, 193–94, 199, 375, 384; Momen, Babi 37, 39; Sulaymani, Masabih 2:496; Ishraq-Khavari, Qamus 202, 206, 1645–52; `Abd al-Baha, Makatib 26; Ishraq-Khavari, Muhadirat 837-39.
The "Most Holy Tablet" is an Arabic letter addressed to a Bahá'í, apparently of Christian background. He may have been Faris Effendi, the Syrian Christian converted by Nabil Zarandi while they were jailed together in Alexandria in 1868. It was written in `Akka, but the exact date is unknown. Its Arabic uses many Christian terms and quotations from the New Testament. The title—properly al-Lawh al-Aqdas—is given by Bahaullah Himself in the heading of the tablet. It is sometimes referred to as the "Tablet" or "Message to the Christians." It is to be classed with the tablets to the kings and rulers revealed in the Edirne and early `Akka periods.
After the initial salutation addressed to the unnamed Christian Bahá'í, the bulk of the tablet is addressed to the Christian community as a whole—the "followers of the Son," the priests, the bishops, and the monks.
Bahaullah begins by asking the Christians why they failed to recognize him as the return of Christ. He points to the Pharisees who had lived in expectation of the Messiah and had known the prophecies of the Old Testament yet had rejected Christ. The monks who fail to recognize Bahaullah are like these.
Bahaullah then eloquently announces his own claim to be the return of Christ, "come down from heaven, even as he came down from it the first time." This announcement is expressed in the prophetic language of the Bible and the Qur'an with allusions to the Kingdom of Heaven, the River Jordan, Sinai, the Father, the Hour, and the Face of God. He chides the Christians for not heeding the voice of the Bab, "the Crier. . . in the wilderness"—words that the New Testament applies to John the Baptist.
He calls the priests to leave their churches and their bells and not to be veiled by the name of Christ, for Bahaullah has glorified Christ. Now they should summon the people to the Most Great Name of Bahaullah. They should ponder the fact that although the light of his revelation appeared in the East, its effects were manifested in the West—perhaps an allusion to the extraordinary technical progress of Europe in the nineteenth century. As for the bishops, he says that they are the stars whose fall had been prophesied by Christ Himself. He promises the monks that if they follow him, he will make them his heirs, though if they fail to do so, he will endure this with patience. The tablet now becomes a dialogue between Bahaullah and Bethlehem and Sinai, in which these two holy places of Christianity and Judaism bear witness to Bahaullah's station.
Bahaullah addresses the recipient of the letter again, praising him for recognizing his Lord. The Muslims had persecuted Bahaullah without just cause, but such people are like the dead. He should not be disturbed by what they say and should remain steadfast.
Bahaullah asks the recipient to greet on his behalf another Bahá'í, whom he praises with wordplay on the man's name, Murad, which means "desired."
The tablet closes with a set of beatitudes proclaiming the blessedness of those who have recognized Bahaullah and his station.
Note: The Lawh-i Aqdas was first published in Kitab-i Mubin, a collection of Bahaullah's writings published in Bombay in 18_?_ [and reprinted as Bahaullah, Athar 1????] Shoghi Effendi translated several passages in Shoghi Effendi, Promised, along with similar passages addressed to the Christian priests. These are incorporated in the full translation found in Bahaullah, Tablets.
Note: The Arabic text is found in Bahaullah, Athar 1 and Bahaullah, Tablets ch. 2. The full English text is in Bahaullah, Tablets,, ch. 2. Extracts translated by Shoghi Effendi are in Shoghi Effendi, Promised 42, 105–7, 110. Eric Bowes, "Bahá'u'lláh's Message to the Christians" (n.p.: Bahá'í Publications Australia, 1986) is a brief commentary addressed to a Christian audience. It includes the full English translation. Information on the Lawh-i Aqdas is found in Ishraq-Khavari, Ganj 164–68, Ishraq-Khavari, Da'irat 13:2011–14, and Taherzadeh 4:227-35. Information on Faris Effendi, the probable recipient, is found in the sources mentioned and in Taherzadeh 3:5-11 and Balyuzi, Bahá'u'lláh 267–68.
Philosophy (Ar. and Pers. falsafah, from Gr. philosophia, "love of wisdom"; hikmat, lit. "wisdom.") is the investigation of the underlying principles of reality and knowledge by rational means. Philosophy is distinguished from religion by its reliance on rational investigation rather than revelation. Traditionally, the natural sciences were considered part of philosophy, but modern thought now confines philosophy to those subjects that cannot be investigated by empirical experiment.
The history of philosophy is complex, and it is not possible to explain here even the various conceptions of the meaning and content of philosophy. Moreover, little research has been done into the philosophical aspects and antecedants of Bahá'í thought, and almost nothing has been done to integrate the ideas of the Bahá'í writings with modern philosophy. Therefore, this article will mainly discuss philosophy as part of the historical background of Bahá'í thought and the references to philosophy in the Bahá'í writings.
Islamic philosophy as background to Bahá'í thought
History of Islamic philosophy. Philosophy reached the Islamic world in the eighth century through the translation of a large number of Greek philosophic, scientific, and medical works. The Greek philosophical corpus in Arabic eventually included most of the works of Aristotle, extracts or summaries of the works of Plato, and various treatises and commentaries of later Hellenistic philosophers, physicians, and scientists. By the ninth century there was an indigenous school of Islamic philosophy, the most important representatives of which were al-Kindi (9th cent.), al-Farabi (d. 950), and Ibn-Sina (980–1037), known in the West as Avicenna. These early Islamic philosophers expounded a system in which Aristotle's logic, physics, psychology, and ontology were combined with a neoplatonic metaphysics of emanation. Though later philosophers made many modifications, this system remains the basis of the Islamic tradition of philosophy up to the present. Thus, the reader should be aware that `philosophy' in Islam refers primarily to the Greek tradition of philosophy, although some strains of Islamic mystical theology came to be included in the philosophical curriculum. Other kinds of Islamic thought, notably dogmatic theology, might also be included as `Islamic philosophy', but following tradition they are not discussed here.
Philosophy, however, never completely overcame opposition from Islamic theologians and jurists who held that certain doctrines of philosophical metaphysics were contrary to Islam. As a result, many of the distinctive features of Islamic philosophy resulted from the philosophers' attempts to reconcile Greek philosophy with revealed religion and specifically Islam. Al-Farabi, the first great Islamic philosopher, taught that the doctrines of prophetic religion—particularly concepts such as heaven and hell that were most disputed between philosophers and theologians—were expressions of philosophical truths in language suitable for the masses of people incapable of grasping literal philosophic truth. Since both philosophers of the Platonic tradition and Muslim scholars considered religions to be primarily legal systems, religion thus became a branch of political philosophy. Philosophy and religion expressed the same truths on different levels. Al-Farabi's approach was carried on by Spanish Arab philosophers such as Ibn-Rushd (the Latin Averroes, 1126–1198) and greatly influenced both Jewish and Christian philosophy in the Middle Ages. In Islam, however, this approach to reconciling religion and philosophy died out after Ibn-Rushd.
In the eastern lands of Islam Ibn-Sina was more influential. In contrast to al-Farabi, who like Plato made political philosophy central to his system, Ibn-Sina mainly confined himself to abstract issues and began to explore the philosophical implications of mysticism. As-Suhrawardi (1154–91) systematically integrated mysticism and philosophy, producing a system reinterpreting Ibn-Sina's system on the basis of the concept of divine light.
The great mystical theologian Ibn-`Arabi (1165–1240) produced a wonderfully complex system of mystical theology that came to be called "the Unity of Being" (wahdat al-wujud). In his system all the creatures of the universe are the self-manifestations of God. His works encompassed all the lore of Islamic thought and mysticism and burst on the Islamic world like a bombshell. Even among thinkers bitterly opposed to him, his system was immensely influential.
Islamic philosophy reached its greatest heights in seventeenth century Iran in the so-called "School of Isfahan," whose greatest representative was Mulla Sadra. In Sadra's system the rationalism of Ibn-Sina and the mysticism of as-Suhrawardi and Ibn-`Arabi were combined. Although philosophy was still a matter of suspicion to most Islamic clerics, a continuous tradition of philosophy has survived carried on by Shi`i clergy from Mulla Sadra and the School of Isfahan down to the present.
The Shaykhis were the most recent distinctive school to arise in Islamic philosophy. Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa'i, a Shi`i Arab from eastern Arabia, propounded an elaborate system in which an extreme reverence for the imams was combined with a philosophical system owing much to Mulla Sadra. His most distinctive contribution was the elaboration of an older idea in which a world of immaterial images intermediate between the physical world and the world of pure spirit served as the locale for heaven, hell, and the miraculous events of the last judgment. Like many Islamic philosophers before him, Shaykh Ahmad was bitterly attacked by orthodox clergy. After the death of his successor, Sayyid Kazim Rashti, a large number of his followers became Babis. The remaining Shaykhis broke into several factions and emphasized the Shi`i orthodoxy of their views, modifying or concealing their most distinctive doctrines.
The philosophical tradition deriving from Ibn-Sina and Mulla Sadra has continued in the theological seminaries of Iran up to the present. Although it has never ceased to be viewed with suspicion by some of the clergy, in recent decades it has attracted considerable interest and respect in the West. A number of prominent figures in the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran were philosophers of this tradition, including Khomeini himself.
Doctrines of Islamic philosophy. Though naturally there is immense variation in the views and approaches of Islamic philosophers over the last twelve centuries, some useful generalizations can be made. Islamic philosophy is based for the most part on the works of Aristotle, which Islamic philosophers understood as a systematic treatmentment of philosophy and science. Where appropriate works of Aristotle were not available, other classical works filled the gap, notably the substitution of Platonic works of political philosophy for the untranslated Politics of Aristotle and the addition of a late textbook of Neoplatonic metaphysics, misattributed in translation under the title of The Theology of Aristotle. After al-Farabi's abortive attempt to organize philosophy on the basis of Platonic political philosophy, almost every Islamic philosoper organized his works on the basis of some variation of a systematic division of the sciences worked out by Ibn-Sina:
Physics (natural science)
First philosophy (ontology)
Economics (household management)
While logic, the sciences, and even ethics eventually were accepted as useful tools even in Islamic jurisprudence, metaphysical doctrines came into direct conflict with Islamic dogmatic theology. While there are innumerable variations, Islamic philosophers generally shared a view of the universe something like the following:
God is that one being whose existence is necessary in itself. God in His essence is absolutely one and simple. Since an absolutely simple cause cannot be the direct cause of the complexity of the world, God in His simplicity cannot be the direct cause of all the particulars of the world, so that the traditional Judeo-Christian-Islamic account of God creating the world by simple fiat cannot be accepted. Instead, God creates directly one other being—an immaterial intellect or mind variously known as the primal intellect, the primal will, the first angel, and the proximate light. This immaterial intellect creates another, which in turn creates another of still lower rank. The Islamic philosophers accepted the Ptolemaic astronomy, in which the earth was at the center of a set of concentric spheres, each associated with a planet and each moved by an immaterial intellect. It is the very complex interrelationships among the planets and their motions that account for the complexities of the sublunar world in which we live. The world itself is eternal, without beginning or end in time.
This metaphysical system came into conflict with Islamic theology and its representatives on several grounds. First was the question of authority. The philosophers claimed to derive doctrines about God, the universe, and the soul from pure reason. Islamic philosophers worked prophecy into their systems and were for the most part sincere Muslims, but it was clear that prophecy was subordinate to philosophy. Second, there were several fundamental philosophical doctrines that directly conflicted with the usual interpretation of Islam: God did not create the universe from nothing at a particular moment of time. It was difficult to explain how God could know particulars or how His providence could care for the individual person. The night-journey of Muhammad, heaven and hell, and the last judgment could not be taken literally. Philosophers were accused of denying the immortality of the individual soul.
Earlier Islamic philosophers had attempted to defuse these criticisms, explaining prophecy and its symbolic elements by subsuming prophecy under political philosophy and explaining the contradictions between philosophy and religion in terms of the rhetorical difficulties of conveying philosophical truths to ordinary people. Later Islamic philosophy drew on mysticism and theories about the imagination to solve such difficulties. As it had in later Greek philosophy, philosophy became an ethical and mystical pursuit for the individual, not simply a subject of intellectual investigation. Thus, philosophical investigation was to some extent protected by the prestige of mysticism.
In addition, new attempts were made explain religion in terms of philosophy. The most interesting was the doctrine of the World of Image. In the material world an image is normally a form subsisting in matter. The divine world of the intellects had no images, only pure intellect. The later philosophers, following Ibn-`Arabi—posited a world in which images could exist without matter. This explained a whole range of phenomena ranging from the images in mirrors, imagination, and dreams to the visions of mystics, heaven and hell, and the last judgment. The Shaykhis developed this idea to its highest degree, arguing that men lived both in this world and several levels of the world of image. The material body, for example, dies in this world but the image body in the world of image is resurrected as promised in the Qur'an.
The Bab and philosophy
The Bab in the Bayan prohibited the study of philosophy (qawa'id-i hikmiya), along with the study of logic, religious law and legal theory, philology, and grammar, except insofar as these disciplines might be necessary for reading his works. He did allow the study of dogmatic theology ('ilm-i kalam). The volume of his writings and the fact that he Himself was devoid of these sciences made their study unnecessary (Persian Bayan 4:10). Though the Bab condemned the study of abstract sciences, many of his most influential followers were drawn from the Shaykhis and may be presumed to have had philosophical training and interests. However, in the few disturbed years before the suppression of the Babis, it is not likely that any of them had much time for philosophical reflection. The Bab's writings show some trace of Shaykhi philosophy and certainly presuppose issues dealt with in Shaykhi and Islamic philosophy, but they do not deal directly with philosophical issues. The relationship of the thought of the Bab and his followers to Islamic philosophy needs much more study.
Bahaullah and philosophy
Though Bahaullah condemned "such sciences as begin in mere words and end in mere words," he did not renew the Bab's explicit condemnation of philosophy. He is not known to have made any particular study of philosophy, but his writings show an easy familiarity with the concepts and main issues of Islamic philosophy. Though none of his writings can be said to be philosophical in a technical sense, he often uses philosophical terminology and sometimes treats specifically philosophical questions. An example is the Tablet of Wisdom (or "of philosophy":`Lawh-i Hikmat'), written in reply to questions about the eternity of the universe submitted by the prominent Bahá'í philosopher Aqa Muhammad Qa'ini, Nabil-i Akbar. In this tablet Bahaullah answers this classical philosophical question, though in a way that indicates that much of the dispute about it derives from the limitations of men's minds. He goes on to summarize the history of the ancient philosophers, citing the common Islamic belief that the Greek philosophers were in contact with the prophets of Israel as evidence that the deistic philosophers drew their fundamental inspiration from prophetic religion. `Abd al-Baha's Secret of Divine Civilization, written about the same time, also gives this account of the history of philosophy.
It should be noted that philosophers were one of the groups addressed in the Suriy-i Muluk.
`Abd al-Baha and philosophy
`Abd al-Baha's writings also show familiarity with Islamic philosophy, in addition to those ideas of European philosophy and science that were becoming known in the Middle East. His earliest major work, the commentary on the famous Islamic tradition "I was a hidden treasure," is a philosophical and mystical refutation of Ibn-`Arabi's doctrine of the unity of being. The Secret of Divine Civilization touches many of the themes relating to philosophy that characterize `Abd al-Baha's later references to the subject: philosophy as a sign of civilization, that the fundamentals of philosophy derive from the prophets, the praise of the great ancient philosophers, and the comparison of the early believers in each religion to philosophers. These themes are expanded in `Abd al-Baha's talks in Europe and America, where he also criticizes modern materialistic philosophy, by which he means a naive faith in the universal applicability of the methods of physical science. This he distinguishes from the deistic philosophy of the ancients and of more reflective moderns.
In such works as Some Answered Questions, `Abd al-Baha frequently uses the concepts and arguments of Islamic philosophy when he discusses scientific, methaphysical, and theological topics. Often he cites the views of the ancient philosophers in confirmation of his own views. Among the philosophical subjects specifically addressed by `Abd al-Baha in his writings and talks are proofs for the existence of God, personal eschatology, epistemology, free will, the nature of religion and evil, and substantial motion. Insofar as they assume a philosophy, the writings of Bahaullah and `Abd al-Baha employ the late Avicennan philosophy of illumination current in nineteenth century Iran. Whether this philosophy is integrally connected with the Bahá'í teachings or whether it is a rhetorical device sometimes useful for conveying them is a matter of current Bahá'í theological debate.
Shoghi Effendi and philosophy
Shoghi Effendi, who was educated in Western schools and had studied political economy and philosophy in college, showed little direct interest in philosophy in his writings. Though he permitted the study of philosophy, he generally encouraged Bahá'ís to pursue more practical interests during his time. He makes little reference to contemporary philosophical schools other than to reiterate `Abd al-Baha's criticism of "materialistic philosophers" and to comment that this sort of philosophy was an intellectual fad that would one day pass. His most specific comment on philosophy is his sharp criticism of the contemporary schools of Hegelian political philosophy, particularly Communism, nationalism, and fascism.
Current Bahá'í law allowing the study of philosophy is based on several interpretations of Shoghi Effendi in which he distinguished between "fruitless excursions into metaphysical hairsplitting" and "a sound branch of learning like philosophy" (Shoghi Effendi, Unfolding 445).
Philosophical writings by Bahá'ís
Among the numerous clerics who became Bahá'ís during the lifetimes of the Bab and Bahaullah were a number of men trained in philosophy. In addition to the many former Shaykhis who may be presumed to have a greater or lesser training in philosophy, we may include Wahid, Sayyid Yahya Darabi, the Babi leader of Yazd and Nayriz, whose father was a well-known philosopher. A number of prominent Bahá'ís of the time of Bahaullah were also trained as philosophers, the most notable being Aqa Muhammad Qa'ini, known as Nabil-i Akbar, and Mirza Abu al-Fadl Gulpaygani. Though both these men wrote on Bahá'í subjects, not surprisingly they dealt mostly with theological subjects and the defense of their new religion.
It is interesting that the two greatest modern Iranian Bahá'í scholars, Fadil Mazandarani and `Abd al-Hamid Ishraq-Khavari, were both former `ulama trained in philosophy. Though both wrote mainly on historical and theological topics, Mazandarani's great compilation of Bahá'í writings, Amr va-Khalq, shows his knowledge of philosophical issues.
Three other recent Bahá'í authors have written specifically on philosophy. `Azizu'llah Sulaymani, better known for his Bahá'í biographical dictionary, prepared a textbook of traditional Islamic philosophy for the use of Bahá'í students. This work, Rashahat-i Hikmat, is intended to familiarize the students with traditional philosophy for use in understanding Bahá'í scripture and for teaching their faith to those trained in this philosophy. It makes no attempt to integrate modern Western philosophy or science. Dr. `Ali-Murad Davudi was chairman of the philosophy department at Tehran University until his disappearance shortly after the Islamic Revolution. He wrote a number of works on the history of Greek and Islamic philosophy, in addition to articles on Bahá'í philosophical and theological themes. Ruhi Afnan, a cousin of Shoghi Effendi expelled as a covenant-breaker, wrote several works on the history of philosophy and its interrelationship with religion. These include an ambitious attempt to correlate Babi and Bahá'í thought with the rationalist philosophies of Descartes and Spinoza.
Only recently have Western Bahá'ís begun to write on philosophical themes. Some examples are listed among the sources mentioned below.
The Greek philosophers and the Jews
Bahaullah and `Abd al-Baha praise the "deistic" (ilahi, muta'allih) philosophers of the Greeks. In a famous tablet to the Swiss scientist A. H. Forel, `Abd al-Baha writes:
As to deistic philosophers, such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, they are indeed worthy of esteem and of the highest praise, for they have rendered distinguished services to mankind. (Bahá'í World 15:37.)
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.), for example, is mentioned a number of times, usually favorably. Aristotle's works had been the primary influence on Islamic philosophy. Islamic philosophers defended Aristotle and the other pagan philosophers as sages of antiquity who through reason and mystical insight or through contact with the Hebrew prophets had attained knowledge of the unity of God. Various wise sayings were attributed to him. Bahaullah's reference to him in the Tablet of Wisdom (para. 47/Bahaullah, Tablets, 147) and many of `Abd al-Baha's references to him reflect this view of Aristotle. `Abd al-Baha thus contrasts him with the modern materialist philosophers and scientists (`Abd al-Baha, Promulgation 327, 356-57/`Abd al-Baha, Khitabat 2:299, Bahá'í World 15:37) and compares the continued fame of his learning with the oblivion of the empires of his day (`Abd al-Baha, Promulgation 348/`Abd al-Baha, Khitabat 2:268). On the other hand, his learning was limited compared to that of the Prophets and of God (`Abd al-Baha, Paris 19, `Abd al-Baha, Some 5:para. 6/p. 15). `Abd al-Baha attributes a type of pantheism to him (`Abd al-Baha, Some 82: para. 2/p. 290).
There has been considerable confusion about Bahaullah's account of the Greek philosophers, as elaborated by `Abd al-Baha. In his Tablet of Wisdom, Bahaullah had praised Hippocrates, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Apollonius of Tyana, and Hermes Trismegistus. Empedocles, he said, had been a contemporary of David and Pythagoras a contemporary of Solomon. Thus, "the essence and fundamentals of philosophy have emanated from the Prophets" (Bahaullah, Tablets, 9, para. 26, pp. 145). Socrates is praised for having taught monotheism, an offence for which the ignorant put him to death.
With the circulation of Bahá'í writings in the West further questions arose. Western Bahá'ís questioned why the chronology implicit in the Tablet of Wisdom differed from the Western histories. Forel had evidently written to question `Abd al-Baha's criticism of "materialist" philosophers. Other questions might have been asked had the Western Bahá'ís of `Abd al-Baha's time known more of classical history: why was Empedocles placed before Pythagoras? Why did Bahaullah seemingly accept the historicity of Hermes Trismegistus, given that Western scholars had known for three hundred years that the works attributed to him were spurious? Explaining that Bahaullah's "Tablet of Wisdom was written in accordance with certain histories of the East," `Abd al-Baha states that histories from the period before Alexander the Great had many discrepancies and that such discrepancies were to be found even in the various versions of the Bible (Research Department, p. 2). To Forel he explained that there had been two schools of ancient philosophers, one deistic and one materialistic. His condemnation of philosophers had applied only to the materialists (Bahá'í World 15:40). The explanation for Socrates' monotheism is that he studied in the Holy Land, for the Greeks were polytheists and so Socrates' monotheism must have had another source. Hippocrates had also lived in Syria, in the city of Tyre (`Abd al-Baha, Some 14–15, 25.55; `Abd al-Baha, Secret 77; `Abd al-Baha, Promulgation 362–63, 406).
The difficulty with `Abd al-Baha's account is that it is not in accordance with what is known about the lives of Greek philosophers. Empedocles and Pythagoras were not contemporaries of David and Solomon. There is no evidence that Socrates went to Syria. Socrates did not teach monotheism. So why did `Abd al-Baha say and write these things? There are two kinds of answers: theological and historical.
The theological answer is simpler. In the time of `Abd al-Baha, Western science, and increasingly Western philosophy, were thoroughly positivistic, sometimes in a very simplistic way. `Abd al-Baha, as had many religious thinkers before him, cited the religiously-oriented Greek philosophers as evidence that reason did not necessarily imply irreligion. Pythagoras and Plato are thus old allies of monotheistic religion. Such statements are additional examples of Bahaullah's and `Abd al-Baha's habit of using their thorough command of high Islamic culture to explicate Bahá'í teachings. But what were the materials that they drew on?
The key to understanding the historical origins of `Abd al-Baha's account is found in his statement that "the Tablet of Wisdom was written in accordance with certain histories of the East." The pre-modern Islamic world had a very imperfect knowledge of the history of Greece in general and of Greek philosophy in particular. `Abd al-Baha's account can be explained by his reliance on the Islamic accounts of the Greek philosophers. The details of his account can be explained in three stages:
1. The two schools of Greek philosophy. On this point `Abd al-Baha is on solid ground. The later Greek historians of philosophy were fond of arranging philosophers in "schools" or "successions." Diogenes Leartius, the author of the most comprehensive surviving classical history of Greek philosophy, divides the philosophers into the Ionians and the Italians. The Ionians were the pre-Socratic physicists, or as it might be translated, "materialists." This succession included the atomists and those pre-Socratics who attempted to find a physical first principle of being. The Italians were the Pythagoreans and Empedocleans, whose interests were more theological and religious (Diogenes Laertius 1.13–14). The same notion is found in pseudo-Plutarch (Aetius), De placita philosophorum (1.3). Here we find Pythagoras, Empedocles, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle listed among the Italians. This work was translated into Arabic, and this chapter was incorporated into various well known Arabic histories of philosophy (e.g., Shahrazuri [13th cent.], Nuzhat al-Arwah, ed. Ahmed [Haidarabad: Da'iratu'l-Ma'arifi'l-Osmania, 1396/1976], 1:20). The Italian school acquired added importance when it was identified by the Illuminationist school of Islamic philosophers with the "divine sages" of the Greeks. The Ionians physicists were mostly forgotten by the Muslims. Thus to later Iranian intellectuals familiar with philosophy, the Greek philosophers of importance were the "divine" or "deistic" philosophers of the Italian school: Pythagoras, Empedocles, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. This was a tradition that both Bahaullah and `Abd al-Baha know and cite.
2. "Those properly called wise." Medieval Muslim scholars attempting to understand the history of Greek thought were confronted by a variety of fragmentary accounts, none of which was sufficiently detailed to serve as the basis of a coherent and comprehensive history. As a result a variety of independent short accounts were transmitted, most of which eventually dropped out of circulation. The most persistent such tradition, found in works written from the tenth century on, was a list of "those properly called wise": Luqman, Empedocles, Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Accounts influenced by it can be recognized by the error of placing Empedocles before Pythagoras. According to this account, Luqman, a sage mentioned in the Qur'an and not otherwise known, lived in Syria at the time of David and was the first to be called "wise" (or "a sage" or philosopher, hakim). Empedocles came to Syria and studied with Luqman. Pythagoras went to Egypt,where he studied with the disciples of Solomon. Socrates was a follower of Pythagoras, who was put to death for refuting polytheism with rational arguments. Finally, there was Plato, who was Socrates' student. This tradition would have been known to any well-educated nineteenth century Iranian.
This account can be traced back as far as the tenth century philosopher al-'Amiri and probably derives in whole or part from some Christian source. It was common for early Christian theologians to trace the origins of Greek philosophy to Jewish sources. They found it a useful strategy for undermining their most formidable pagan opponents, the Neoplatonic philosophers. Needless to say, there is no evidence of intellectual contact between the Greeks and Jews before the conquests of Alexander and little evidence of significant intellectual contact until even later. The identification of the Jews as the original source of philosophy was useful for medieval Muslims as well, since the Islamic version of the theory of progressive revelation did not provide an obvious explanation for pagan philosophy. That this particular account is the origin of Bahaullah's and `Abd al-Baha's versions of the history of Greek philosophy is obvious from a variety of large and small features.
3. Oral simplification and quoting from memory. There is one major remaining incongruity: `Abd al-Baha's statement that Socrates studied in Syria. No such statement is known either in Greek or Islamic sources—or for that matter, in Bahaullah's writings. `Abd al-Baha writes the following:
It is recorded in eastern histories that Socrates journeyed to Palestine and Syria and there, from men learned in the things of God, acquired certain spiritual truths; that when he returned to Greece, he promulgated two beliefs: one, the unity of God, and the other, the immortality of the soul after its separation from the body; that these concepts, so foreign to their thought, raised a great commotion among the Greeks, until in the end they gave him poison and killed him. . . .Eastern histories also state that Hippocrates sojourned for a long time in the town of Tyre, and this is a city in Syria. (`Abd al-Baha, Selections 25, p. 55)
This passage attributes two innovations to Socrates: the unity of God and the immortality of the soul. In the Islamic versions of the tradition we have been discussing, these doctrinal innovations are attributed to Empedocles, not Socrates. Hippocrates is not said to have lived in Tyre; Pythagoras was. In each of these cases a less familiar name in the Islamic tradition—Empedocles and Pythagoras—has been replaced by a more familiar name—Socrates and Hippocrates. In the absence of a textual source embodying the confusion, the probable explanation is simply that `Abd al-Baha read the story in some history and later retold it several times, and that either he or his secretary confused Socrates with Empedocles.
As for the larger question of whether the early Greek philosophers could have been influenced by Judaism, the answer is no. There is no surviving reference in Greek to the Jews dating earlier than the conquests of Alexander, which took place in Aristotle's lifetime. It is also quite certain that no such references were known in the first century C.E., since had they existed Jewish apologists such as Philo and Josephus would certainly have eagerly cited them, as would slightly later Christian writers. The reason why there was no such contact is simple enough; the Greeks and Jews had no common language. The Jews of that time used Aramaic as a lingua franca; the Greeks used Greek. There would have been nowhere they would have met with a common language. Plausible arguments can be made for a Zoroastrian influence, or even an Egyptian influence, on early Greek philosophy, but not for a Jewish influence.
Sources: The principle Bahá'í scriptures dealing with philosophical subjects are the Tablet of Wisdom (Bahaullah, Tablets, 9:137–52), `Abd al-Baha, Some (especially parts 4 and 5), `Abd al-Baha, Promulgation (20–22, 87–91, 253–55, 326–27, 355–61), and Tablet to Dr. Forel (Bahá'í World Faith 336–48). Bahá'í writers on philosophy have include `A. M. Davudi, Insan dar A'yin-i Bahá'í and Uluhiyat va Mazhariyat; William Hatcher, Logic and Logos; Julio Savi, The Eternal Quest for God; John Hatcher, The Purpose of Physical Reality; B. Hoff Conow, The Bahá'í Teachings; Udo Schaefer, The Imperishable Dominion; M. Momen, "Relativism: a Basis for Bahá'í Metaphysics," in SBBR 5:185–217; Robert Parry, "Philosophical Theology in Bahá'í Scholarship," BSB Oct. 1992, 6/4–7/2: 66–91. Ruhi Afnan, the Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh and the Bab: Book 1: Descartes' Theory of Knowledge (New York: Philosophical Library, 1970); idem, Bahá'u'lláh and the Bab Confront Modern Thinkers: Book 2: Spinoza: Concerning God (New York: Philosophical Library, 1977). The text of the tradition of "the five properly called wise" is found, with thorough commentary, in Everett K. Rowson, A Muslim Philosopher on the Soul and its Fate (American Oriental Series 70; New Haven: American Oriental Society, 1988), 70–89, 203–63. I have discussed various aspects of this tradition and related material in two books: The Leaven of the Ancients: Suhrawardi and the Heritage of the Greeks, esp. ch. 4–8, and The Wisdom of the Mystic East: Suhrawardi and Platonic Orientalism, esp. ch. 2. On Socrates in Islamic sources, see Ilai Alon, Socrates in Mediaeval Arabic Literature (Islamic Philosophy, Theology, and Science, Texts and Studies X; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1991). On texts relating to Socrates in the Bahá'í writings, see Research Department, Bahá'í World Center, Memorandum to Universal House of Justice, 22 October 1995, which was kindly shared with me by Robert Johnston. On the history of Greek philosophy in the Tablet of Wisdom, see Juan R. I. Cole, "Problems of chronology." Introductions to Islamic philosophy include Majid Fakhry, A History of Islamic Philosophy, Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Oliver Leaman, eds., History of Islamic Philosophy, and M. M. Sharif, A History of Muslim Philosophy, though none are totally satisfactory.
The attitude towards dreams displayed in Babi and Bahá'í history and literature is firmly rooted in Iranian tradition. Iranians have generally accepted the possibility of significant true dreams. Thus, the sophisticated philosophical tradition of which the Shaykhi school was a part explained dreams as a contact with the World of Image, an intermediary world between the material and purely spiritual realms. The authority of true dreams was unquestioned in the Iranian, the Islamic, and the Shi'ite traditions. The Shah-Nama, the Iranian national epic, reports a number of dreams foreshadowing the rise or fall of rulers and thus granting political legitimacy. The Qur'an itself was sometimes revealed to Muhammad in dreams. The Prophet Joseph was the archetype of dream-interpreters (Q 12:4, 36–49). The Shi'ite Imams received inspiration through true dreams.
The most important class of dream for the spiritual background of the Bahá'í Faith is that in which a religious figure appears and initiates or gives knowledge to an individual. The tradition of receiving revelation in a dream goes back in Iran to Zoroaster. Throughout the history of Islamic Iran, claims to religious knowledge or authority have been made on the basis of dreams in which the Prophet, the Imams, angels, or other supernatural individuals appeared. Such dreams took on particular importance for Shi'ism, since it was believed that the Twelfth Imam was in concealment but still concerned with the affairs of his community. It was through dreams that he most commonly instructed his followers. For Shaykh Ahmad Ahsa'i, the founder of the Shaykhi school, such dreams were central. He saw the Imams and the Prophet many times in dreams and had received from them the authority to teach (Amanat, Resurrection 131-32, 168). During the period prior to his declaration of his mission to Mulla Husayn, the Bab had significant dreams. It was a dream in which he drank a drop of the blood of the Imam Husayn's severed head that begin his prophethood. Likewise, Bahaullah's prophethood first came to him during dreams in the Siyah-Chal.
True dreams may also be symbolic and require interpretation—as the example of Joseph shows. In Bahá'í history the most famous interpretation of a dream is that of Bahaullah's father. According to Nabil (119) Bahaullah's father had dreamed of his son swimming in the ocean as fish clung to his hair. A dream interpreter had been summoned and explained this as a prophecy of the boy's future greatness. Likewise, a mujtahid's dreams warn him of Bahaullah's greatness (Nabil, 111–12), and a dream tells a merchant to prepare to be the Bab's host (Nabil, 217). Such dreams have continued to play a role in Bahá'í piety ever since.
In Bahá'í theology, dreams are significant only as evidence of the objective existence of the spiritual realm. Both Bahaullah and `Abd al-Baha say that true dreams, dreams in which problems are solved, and the power to travel beyond one's own body in dreams are evidence that man's soul is immaterial (Bahaullah, Seven 32–33; Bahaullah, Gleanings 79:151–53; `Abd al-Baha, Some 61:227–28).
In the modern Bahá'í community, dreams have no official authority (Hornby, Lights 1739:513–14, 1745:515), but they often play a role in the spiritual lives of individuals. Two themes are particularly significant. Dreams in which `Abd al-Baha appears, often to give some spiritual advice or practical instruction, seem to be not uncommon and are generally viewed as spiritually significant. Second, dreams sometimes play a role in teaching successes. A Bahá'í teacher might report being guided by a dream to a place or an individual. Sometimes, Bahá'í teachers report being told that a dream, either of the teacher himself , of `Abd al-Baha, or of some other recognizable Bahá'í image, had presaged their coming. Though such reports have no canonical authority and perhaps properly belong to the realm of Bahá'í folklore, they do play a role in modern Bahá'í spirituality.
Sources: On dreams in Iran see H. Ziai, EIr, s.v. "Dreams and Dream Interpretation."
Evolution: a note
From the mid-nineteenth century to the present, the issue of conflict between science and religion has been preeminently identified with the dispute about evolution and human origins. The religious implications of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection were recognized as soon as his The Origin of Species was published in 1859. Not only did Darwin's theory discredit traditional religious accounts of the origin of man, such as those found in Genesis and the Qur'an, it seemed to make man an animal like any other and thus cast into doubt any accout positing a supernatural aspect of human beings. The controversies concerning evolution in the Christian world are well known and still continue, especially among evangelical Protestants. Darwin's theory became well known in the Middle East within a few decades of its publication through popular accounts in Arabic and other Islamic languages. A Shi'i cleric in Najaf wrote a two volume refutation of Darwin soon after the publication of the first book on the subject in Arabic. Thus, by the time `Abd al-Baha came into contact with Westerners around the beginning of the twentieth century, evolution was a subject that any serious religious thinker—Middle Eastern, American, or European—would be expected to take a position on.
`Abd al-Baha's best known statement on the subject is in Some Answered Questions (ch. 45–51). It is usually understood to advance a theory that man evolved from a more primitive form to his present state but that he was always a distinct species, not directly related to other animals. Such a theory has no scientific support.
`Abd al-Baha's statements on evolution reflect the unease of many thoughtful religious people of the time at the use and misuse of Darwinist concepts. Evolution was being used as a justification for the abandonment of traditional religious and spiritual ideas, of standards of decency and kindness, and of the social solidarity that made the rich and powerful responsible for the well-being of the poorer and weaker members of society. The formulation given in this talk is clearly `Abd al-Baha's attempt to offer a way out of this dilemma, using the philosophical and theological concepts of the sophisticated Iranian philosophical tradition, which since the work of the great philosopher Mulla Sadra in the 17th century, had seen the transformation of substance as a key to understanding the deepest nature of being and the godhead. Thus, his statements on evolution should be read not literally as corrections to a particular scientific theory but as an insistence that scientific truth must be understood in the context of a spiritual view of the universe. (See also Brown and von Kitzing, Evolution and Bahá'í Belief, which I have not used.)
The biggest news story during the first few weeks of `Abd al-Baha's stay in America was the sinking of the British passenger steamship Titanic of the famous White Star Line. He had reached America on 11 April 1912, a few days before the disaster.
The largest and most luxurious liner built to that day, the Titanic sank after striking an iceberg on her maiden voyage from England to New York on 15 April 1912. Of the 2235 people aboard 1522 drowned or froze, including many prominent English and American socialites. News of the disaster reached America the next day and filled the papers for weeks to come. Following a speech to the Persian-American Association in Washington, D.C., on 20 April, he was asked by reporters about the disaster. He replied that Europeans and Americans seemed possessed by a desire for speed, that it was a pity if such a loss of life had indeed resulted from nothing more important than the desire to save a few hours (Ward, 239 Days, citing Washington Evening Star, 21 April 1912).
At a reception on 23 April, he returned to the topic of the disaster. `Abd al-Baha', who had chosen to come to America on the more modest Cedric of the same line, remarked that he had traveled as far as Naples with some of those who died—presumably some of the many Syrians among the immigrants in steerage, almost all of whom died. Explaining that in everything there is a divine wisdom, he then spoke of death as the gate to the other worlds of God and said that the disaster showed both the need for man's technical skill and his ultimate dependence on God (`Abd al-Baha, Promulgation 46–48). `Abd al-Baha's remarks are notable for avoiding both the most common reactions to the disaster: excessive sentimentality and intemperate criticism of society, the owners, crew, or survivors.