Baha'u'llah as Zoroastrian saviourBahá'í Studies Review, 8, page 14–33
London: Association for Baha'i Studies English-Speaking Europe, 1998
In 19th-century Iran, the founder of the Bahá'í Faith, Bahá'u'lláh, was acclaimed by a significant number of Zoroastrian converts, mainly from Yazd and Kerman, as the promised Sháh Bahrám Varjávand, a Zoroastrian messianic king foretold in several Pahlavi and New Persian texts. Later, still other Zoroastrians, primarily from the Írání Zoroastrian community in India, were won over to the nascent faith. (There were actually few converts from among the Parsis.) Indeed, Zoroastrians were among the first non-Muslim converts to the Bahá'í Faith in its formative era.
Recognition of the advent of this promised saviour depended greatly on one's perception and acceptance of Bahá'u'lláh's fulfilment of Zoroastrian prophecies. This fulfilment was not literal at the level of text, which required certain prodigies to establish prophetic warrant, and had laid out a scenario wherein the Zoroastrian religion and the vanquished Sasanian empire would be restored and the golden age of Zoroastrianism reign triumphant. Sháh Bahrám was supposed to be a Zoroastrian warlord, who would fight an apocalyptic battle of cosmic proportions. But Bahá'u'lláh was a prisoner and exile during his forty-year ministry (1852-92). He did not restore Sasanian Iran, nor did he re-establish the Zoroastrian religion. Nor did he reinvest Zoroastrian high priests with their former authority, nor has the golden age of Zoroastrian Iran been revived as the messianic era, the Renovation. A messiah is supposed to be a victor, not a victim. In Judaism, for example, the notion of a crucified messiah was absurd, incredible. (St. Paul calls the idea of a crucified messiah a "scandal" among Jews.) In traditional Zoroastrian terms, an imprisoned messiah was no messiah at all. Drawing from the Jewish ideal of the three highest offices (tria munera), which gave rise to an expectation of three messiahs at the time of John the Baptist (note the three questions addressed to the Baptist in the first chapter of the gospel of John), Bahá'u'lláh was neither a "royal" messiah, nor was he a "priestly" messiah. But was he a "prophetic" messiah?
While Bahá'u'lláh's claim, on the face of it, failed to fulfil Zoroastrian apocalypses literally, he did succeed in making a case for fulfilment symbolically. As stated, Persian Zoroastrians who accepted Bahá'u'lláh recovered neither their former monarchy nor their lost empire. But they did get a new world religion, the Bahá'í Faith, which, like Zoroastrianism, was Persian in origin, and had a number of resonances with, if not elements of, Zoroastrianism itself. In this light, the Bahá'í Faith was embraced by Zoroastrian converts as Zoroastrianism reborn. But, for other Zoroastrians, the Bahá'í religion was simply Zoroastrianism abandoned.
Together with other signs of prophetic warrant - charisma, miracles, and the like - prophecy is adduced as special evidence of prophetic credentials. In other words, the messiah is who he says he is because prophecies are interpreted as foretelling his advent. Consequently, there exists a dynamic relationship between the truth claim and the proof text. Were the proof text clear enough, it would require little interpretation. The truth claim would simply be validated by the proof text, and the messiah would then have an easy time attracting converts. But let us consider the case of Bahá'u'lláh, in which the relationship between truth claim and proof text is not only not apparent, but, worse still, appears to be contradictory. This paper will also examine how it came to be that Bahá'u'lláh could have been accepted, in Zoroastrian terms, as a messianic king without a kingdom, and how this cognitive dissonance was rationalised and overcome.
Zoroaster proclaimed that man has choice, and that his choice for good over evil is the voice of his own destiny, in accordance with the will of God. A good choice is a choice for the good, which assures one's destiny in the afterlife. Following the Zoroastrian ideal of "good thoughts, good words, good deeds," the ethical and religious life becomes a moral and social force. In this way, humanity participates in, rather than imitates, history. Zoroaster inspired confidence that the reign of righteousness would ultimately triumph over evil at the end of time. One scholar calls the introduction of such ideas into so archaic a setting "an astonishing fact of history."(7)
In the Zoroastrian scheme of salvation-history, which spans a "world-year" of 12,000 years (evidently inherited from Babylonian cosmology), Zoroaster appears in the cosmic year 9000. In good Indo-European tradition, Zoroaster, according to the Younger Avesta and passages in Middle Persian texts, foretells the coming of three saviours, who appear in successive millennia after him.(8) There is, apparently, a symmetry between these three future saviours and Zoroaster's three historical sons. The last of these saviours is Astvat-ereta, the true Saoshyant, whom later Zoroastrian tradition has associated with the advent of Sháh Bahrám Varjávand. As Mary Boyce states: "the future hope of ordinary people seems to have been fixed on the coming of the one Sócyant, who will be mightily helped, it is believed, by Vahrám, the yazad of Victory at the end of the 10th millennium (i.e. the present one)."(9) It is now around 3,000 years after Zoroaster, according to the best estimates of when Zoroaster lived. As Boyce implies, the appearance of Sháh Bahrám is either imminent, or overdue.
Such malaise, such compensatory longing for revival of religion and empire, imbued Zoroastrian apocalypses with bittersweet nostalgia. Zoroastrianism, after all, had had a long history of being the state religion of Persian and Iranian empires. Zoroastrianism was the state religion of the first Persian empire (600-330 BCE), established by Cyrus the Great. Another Iranian empire was that of the Parthians (c. 238 BCE-224 CE), a people of northeastern Iranian uplands, where Zoroastrianism continued to flourish as the state religion.(11) The Parthian empire was succeeded by the second Persian empire, that of the Sasanians (224-642 CE), which constituted the golden age of Zoroastrianism.(12)
A study of comparative apocalyptic literature discloses that last events are often modelled on past events, and that utopian visions are typically projections of some nostalgic golden age that embodies the ideals that religions hold dear. Such a wish-image was expressed in Zoroastrian apocalyptic texts of the type classified by John J. Collins as "historical" apocalypses as distinct from otherworldly journeys.(13) These texts predicted that a messianic king would, one day, come from India, to defeat the Arabs/Turks and re-establish the Persian empire. The name of this royal messiah, in New Persian, was Sháh Bahrám Varjávand (Middle Persian: Wahrám í Warcáwand), who is mentioned in the Zand í Vahman Yasn (= Bahman Yact, VII. 4-5; VIII.1 [III.14; III.39]) and Bundahicn (XXXIII.27), and other texts.
Apocalypses typically provide the reader with both retrospect and prospect. The latter takes the form of prophecy. Prophecy is popularly thought of as a kind of literary crystal ball, a telescopic glimpse into the final phase of history, where both heaven and hell are historicised in the teleological intersection of sacred and linear time. While some prophecies may be transparent in meaning, others may be expressed in coded narratives. Employing the future as tense metaphor, rhetorically reinforced by hortative and optative moods, the faithful are asked to endure until the clock of history strikes its final hour, when the pious are vindicated and the impious are vanquished, when the bygone righteous, the "special dead," rejoin the living, when the longed-for messiah appears on the historical horizon in the twilight of time, to execute justice and restore righteousness. Visions of the end are re-visions of history.
As crisis literature, an apocalypse is typically a register of social malaise, described in cosmic terms. Eschatological tension is sustained as the faith-community participates vicariously in the apocalyptic drama. In Zoroastrian apocalypses, this drama reaches its climax in the advent of the messianic king, who fights a cosmic battle of world-historical proportions, and who, after his glorious victory, returns Zoroastrianism to its rightful place as the dominant tradition of Persia. One of the texts in which Sháh Bahrám Varjávand appears is as follows:
When may it be that a courier comes from India (hindúkán),This and similar vaticinations of the advent of Sháh Bahrám cannot be regarded as genuine prophecies without qualification. The texts were composed after many of the events had transpired. These recapitulations of recent history are narrated as having been foreseen by Zoroaster himself. (Zoroaster's predictions, of course, turn out to be true.) Some Zoroastrian apocalypses that foretell Sháh Bahrám were composed in the 9th-10th centuries, posterior to the Arab conquest of Iran. These texts, if one were to reduce them to their bare essentials, are lamentations over the fall of the Sasanian empire to the Arabs, and the fall from power of the Zoroastrian sacerdotal order as well. Here we see a literary form which Tord Olsson classes as a descriptio mundi inversi, or the inversion of ideal social values,(15) associated with the Arab conquerors whose conquest proved catastrophic to both Zoroastrian church and state. It should be no surprise, therefore, to find that the descriptions of Sháh Bahrám are bellicose, pervaded by an unabashed revenge motif. Sháh Bahrám Varjávand leads into Persia a large army from India - a force both formidable and frightening, considering the impact that one thousand elephants would likely have had on Persians who had scarcely seen such creatures.
Czeglédy notes that: "Among the Persian apocalyptic writings which, in the form of a vaticinatio ex eventu, relate Sasanian history, the collapse of the Sasanian empire, the Arab rule and then, in the form of a genuine prophecy, describe the events of the last days, most important are the Zand-i-Vahuman Yasn (Bahman Yact) and the Zámásp Námak...The Zámásp Námak refrains from naming the victorious Prince of the Last Days; the Zand-i-Vahuman Yasn calls him Vahrám."(16) The passage referred to explicitly names "the leather-belted Turk" and "the three, Turk, Arab, and Roman" as oppressors of Zoroastrians, one of the saviours of whom Ahura Mazdá announces, in the form of a prophecy: "'O Zartosht the Spitaman [Zoroaster]! When the demon with dishevelled hair of the race of Wrath comes into notice in the eastern quarter, in the direction of Chinistan [China], it is said - some have said among the Hindus - 'is born a prince (kai); it is his father, a prince of the Kayanian race, approaches the women, and a religious prince is born to him; he calls his name Warharan [Bahrám] the Varjavánd,' some have said Shahpur."(17) In this passage, Sháh Bahrám Varjávand is said to be "Shahpur" - ostensibly a reference to one of the great Sasanian kings (or else to one of the historical sons of Bahrám Chúbín, according to Julie Meisami of the Oxford Oriental Institute [see note 56]). The wish-image of a restored Persian empire is implicit. The close relationship between royalty and religion is evident further in the text: 'And regarding that Warharan the Varjavánd it is declared that he comes forth in full glory, and having entrusted him with the seat of mobadship of the mobads, and the seat of true explanation of the religion, he restores again these countries of Iran which I, Ohrmazd, created'."(18) Note that the literary figure of Ahura Mazdá is neither foretelling Bahá'u'lláh, nor the Bahá'í religion, but rather the restoration of Zoroastrian sceptre and mitre.
The Zand í Vahman Yasn (also known, as Czeglédy states, as the Bahman Yact) is probably the most important of Zoroastrian apocalypses. It is also the most textually problematic due to its redaction history. By its very title, this Pahlavi (Middle Persian) work purports to be a "commentary" or "interpretation" of a lost book of the Avesta, the Vahman Yasn. The Zand í Vahman Yasn is extant also in Pazand and Persian versions. Among religious-minded Parsis, the chanting of this apocalypse over a period of forty days was believed to be meritorious and would conduce to the fulfilment of prayers.(19) Significant portions of this work can be dated to the Hellenistic age. One effort has been made to restore the original version by stripping away strata of late origin, leaving only the ancient source as it probably stood.(20)
In the Zand í Vahman Yasn, five distinct saviours appear. Three are mythical figures: Hushedar, Peshyotanu, and Saoshyans. The other two are Sasanian kings: Shapur and Bahrám V (Varjávand), providing internal evidence of periodic redactions. The evidence suggests that, in its original form, this apocalypse was a four-monarch prophecy, undergoing further revision during the Sasanian period and was eventually transformed into seven-monarch prophecy in the process. Re-editing was needed in order to adapt the text to changing historical circumstances. Revision continued until around the thirteenth century, as the obvious references in the text to the Arab and Turkish invasions of Persia attest.
Zarathustra, in the first chapter of the Zand í Vahman Yasn, prays for immortality. God (Ahura Mazdá, the "Wise Lord" or, perhaps, "The Lord Wisdom")(23) grants to the prophet "the wisdom of all-knowledge" instead. Zarathuctra then beholds a vision of a tree with four branches: gold, silver, steel and mixed iron, the latter representing the "dominion of the heretics."(24) In the longer account found in the third chapter, the branches become seven in number. All of these are interpreted as kingdoms, "and so provide an ex eventu prophecy of the periods of world history."(25) Chapters Four through Six portray a series of political and cosmic disasters. Varjávand appears in the eighth chapter. Boyce describes the close of the text so: "The longest section of the Zand is devoted to the Age of Iron, told with bitter feelings The text ends with a prophecy of the coming of Wahrám-i-Warcáwand, God of Victory, to restore Iran and the Good Religion, and to usher in the last millennium."(26) This prophecy reads as follows: "As regards Vahram-i Varjavand, it is manifest that he will come forth with full radiance, and having settled the adjudged and true position of Religion, he will restore these Iranian villages which I, Ahura Mazdá, created. Avarice, indigence, revenge, anger, lust, envy, and wickedness will wane from the world. The wolf age will pass away and the lamb age will enter."(27) Duchesne-Guillemin observes that the "career" of Varjávand "is recounted all through the Bahman Yasht, in which he eclipses not only the other precursors, but the Saviours themselves (Zarathuctra's three sons). He restores Iran's independence, and unites the throne to the altar."(28)
A closely-related apocalypse was Zámásp Námak, or Jámaspí (hereinafter referred to as the Zámásp), also composed in Pahlavi.(29) Of all the extant Pahlavi texts, none has been so well-known among the Parsis in India as the Zámásp. For some time, it was held in great veneration by the orthodox Zoroastrians, especially by the female members of the community. Now and then the book was consulted for foretelling some events. This exercise of divination is consistent with the perceived prophetic nature of the apocalypse. Bearing this in mind, it can be seen why Varjávand remained such a popular eschatological figure among pious Parsis.
The Zámásp Námak occurs also in Pazand and Persian versions as Chapter Sixteen of the poorly-preserved work known as the Ayátkár-i Jámasp. It is the untranslated Persian version that specifically mentions Varjávand. Why the Pahlavi and Pazand versions fail to give Varjávand's name, while the Persian version does, is a unsolved problem. Instead, in the Pahlavi and Pazand versions, Varjávand is referred to as the King of Patasvargar, which is Tapurastan or Tabaristan. This area, first conquered by the Arabs in 758 CE, is a somewhat inaccessible mountainous region. It runs along the southern shores of the Caspian Sea. The area had only been superficially converted to Islam at the time of conquest, and pockets of Zoroastrianism persisted here even in the ninth century.(30) Of the Zámásp in the Persian vernacular, Modi states: "The Persian Jamaspi treats of six principal subjects The sixth chapter treats of different prognostications, that will usher in the age of a coming apostle (Beheram) Varjavand. It corresponds to Fragment No. one of the Pahlavi Jamaspi and to the ninth chapter of the Pazend Jamaspi. The Persian Jamaspi has clear references to the rule of the Turks in the beginning of the tenth century."(31)
The prophecies of the Persian messiah, Sháh Bahrám Varjávand, are clearly modelled on the legendary Persian warlord Bahrám óbín, whose stunning victory over the Turks in 589 CE saved the Persian empire from extinction.(32) Anders Hultgård concurs: "The expectations of a redemption coming from the east, from India, which appear in passages concerning Vahrám í Varcávand (Bahman Yact, VII. 4-5; VIII.1 [III.14; III.39] and Bundahicn XXXIII.27), may correspond to real attempts to restore the national independence of Iran after its subjugation by the Arabs."(33) Cereti offers the novel theory that Sháh Bahrám Varjávand is to be identified with A-luo-han, the Chinese name of Yazdegard III's son Wahrám [d. 710 CE], who fled, along with other members of Sasanian royalty after the Arab conquest in 642 CE, to the Chinese capital, where he served in the imperial court of China. Woven into the Varjávand prophecies were traits and motifs of his legendary namesakes, Bahrám Cóbín and Bahrám Gór.(34) Richard Frye explains this promotion of Bahrám Cóbín to Persian messiah by appealing to some characteristic features of Persian hagiography: "Thus, to refer to the Sasanian period of Iran's history, Vahram-i Varjavand, seems to me to be a greatly heroised example of the millenary tradition, for he is a truly messianic personality, even though probably a greatly heroised form of the historic Bahrám Chobin. As I have frequently stated, in the past of Iran, for the people, history was not what really happened, or even what they thought had happened, but what they thought should have happened. This is a fundamental characteristic of the view of the past among a people who have a strong epic tradition and a messianic tradition of time speculation."(35)
Providing insights at both ends of the historical spectrum, from the prophets who foretell to the prophets who fulfil, scholarship has largely disenchanted the prophetic authenticity of the apocalyptic genre in general. The eschatological promotion of a celebrated hero into a future saviour is by no means an isolated religious phenomenon. One has only to look to the Hindu messianic lore surrounding the tenth avatar, Kalki Viuyaas, who eschatologically echoes Yasodharman, a warlord roughly contemporary with Bahrám Cóbín, but who repulsed Huns rather than Turks.(36) A further example is to be seen in the figure of King Geser of Ling, who in later versions of the Central Asian epic returns to earth during the last days, when his superhuman prowess as a warrior prepares the world for the advent of the future Buddha, Maitreya.(37)
We may thus conclude the following regarding Sháh Bahrám Varjávand, a central figure in Pahlavi apocalyptic literature: (1) While etymologically derived from Verethragna (the Persian Mars), this Bahrám is not, according to Cereti, the God of Victory, even though this yazad can be identified with another apocalyptic figure, Wahrám í Amáwand (Zand í Wahman Yasn 7.28); (2) Sháh Bahrám exhibits epic traits peculiar to the exploits of Bahrám Cóbín, Sasanian usurper and scourge of the Turks (589 CE), popularized in the Romance of Bahrám Cóbín (Bahrám-Chúbín-Náma); (3) Sháh Bahrám further combines features of another popular namesake, Bahrám Gór (son and successor of Yazdegard I); (4) A final layer in the construction of Sháh Bahrám as a composite figure may be his possible identity as a son of Yazdegard III, Wahrám (d. 710 CE), whom Chinese history knows as the Persian noble, A-luo-han. Persian Zoroastrians hoped that Sháh Bahrám Varjávand was to return from China, by way of India, with an army assembled by the Emperor of China, to recapture Persia. Thus, Sasanian political propaganda was transformed into an apocalyptic wish-image. Herein lies the deconstruction of apocalyptic literature by modern scholarship which, as suggested in the introduction, stands in tension with the claims of modern messiahship, of which the figure of Bahá'u'lláh is an example par excellence.
Moreover, the Babis recognize Zoroaster as a prophet, though without much enthusiasm, and are at some pains to conciliate and win over his followers to their way of thinking, as instanced by the epistles addressed by Beha from Acre to certain of their number; while some few at least of the Zoroastrians are not indisposed to recognize in Beha their expected deliverer, Sháh Bahrám, who, as Dastur Tir-andaz informed me, must appear soon if they were to be rescued from their abasement, and "the Good Religion" re-established. The Dastur himself, indeed, would not admit that Beha could be this promised saviour, who, he said, must come before the next Naw-Ruz if he were to come at all I found that the Dastur was also very full of a rare old book called the Jamasp-Nama, of which he said only one copy, stolen by a Musulman named Huseyn from the house of a Zoroastrian in Yezd, existed in Kirman, though he had information of another copy in the library of the Mosque at Mashhad. This book he described as containing a continuous series of prophecies, amongst which was included the announcement of the return of Shah Bahram, the Zoroastrian Messiah.(39)
Significant numbers of Zoroastrians, including Zoroastrians of significance, found the promised Sháh Bahrám Varjávand in the person of Bahá'u'lláh. Later, tracts were written to strengthen the Bahá'í mission to Zoroastrians, whose strongholds were in the Iranian cities of Kerman and Yazd. One of these tracts was written by the greatest of the early Bahá'í savants, Mírzá Abu'l-Fal Gulpaygání. In order to demonstrate the truth of Bahá'u'lláh's truth claims, Abu'l-Fal adduced passages from a text known as the Desatír, a late pious fraud which the Cambridge Orientalist labelled a "forgery." In any event, the marshalling of proof texts in support of Bahá'u'lláh's messianic claims served their purpose very well, because of the currency and popularity of the Desatír among the Zoroastrians of Iran, who accepted the authority of this text. One may speak of the inauthenticity of a text, but the messianic hope of Zoroastrians was as genuine as it was long-standing.
Nevertheless, Bahá'u'lláh's claim of prophecy-fulfilment is problematic for two reasons, as mentioned in the introduction: first, Bahá'u'lláh accomplished none of the prodigies that Zoroastrian texts required, nor did Bahá'u'lláh overthrow the oppressors. Instead of restoring Sasanian Zoroastrianism, he brought a new religion, soon to be known as the Bahá'í Faith, which, in all fairness, did represent itself as the renewal of the old Zoroastrian religion. Bahá'u'lláh was a prisoner of the Ottoman empire, not a military hero, and simply did not fulfil the Zoroastrian prophecies as popularly expected.
Worse still, some of the teachings Bahá'u'lláh promulgated appeared to be at odds with traditional Zoroastrian teachings. For example, the Bahá'í Faith, as a universal, global religion, attracts converts from virtually all religions and cultures, while the policy that prevails among Zoroastrians today is insularity. Like Judaism during the Second Temple period, there might have been a time during which Zoroastrianism had been a missionary religion. Now it is strictly an ethnic religion, antithetical to conversions, and thus is a dying religion. Present-day Zoroastrianism strongly discourages intermarriage outside one's religious and ethnic community, whereas the Bahá'í Faith encourages interracial and cross-cultural marriages.
The second reason is that the Zoroastrian prophecies themselves were not genuine prophecies. They were certainly wish-images, and authentic documents registering despair, with lamentation followed by vaticination. If we accept the position that apocalyptic is a form of crisis literature, then the historical value of these texts is beyond reproach in terms of having captured the mood and especially the malaise that prevailed among Zoroastrians of that time. In the interest of reclaiming a lost Persian glory and of restoring the Zoroastrian clergy to power, these prophetic texts employ, as mentioned above, a literary device known as vaticinatio ex eventu, or prophecy after the event, where past events become last events, in which a nostalgic golden age is projected into the future.
'Abdu'l-Bahá was asked about one of the prodigies that Sháh Bahrám was to have performed: "Thou hadst written that in the sacred books of the followers of Zoroaster it is written that in the latter days, in three separate Dispensations, the sun must needs be brought to a standstill. In the first Dispensation, it is predicted, the sun will remain motionless for ten days; in the second for twice that time; in the third for no less than one whole month."(42) Here 'Abdu'l-Bahá restates the question posed by a Zoroastrian Bahá'í. What is represented as Zoroastrian prophecy is quite accurate. The Parsi scholar Maneckji Nusservanji Dhalla gives the most accessible sources.(43) While there are several Zoroastrian texts that may be cited in support of this statement, the most concise may be the following: "It is said that the sun will stand in the midst of the sky in the time of Oshedar Bami [Hushédar Bámí] for 10 days and in the time of Oshedar Mah [Hushédar Máh] for 20 days and in the time of Soshyosh [the final Soshyant or saviour] for 30 days."(44)
This eschatological prodigy had such importance for establishing the legitimacy of any prophet-claimant that the late Czech scholar Otakar Klíma, gave an interesting notice of it. Klíma suggested that the feat of arresting the sun in its zenith was a requirement fabricated by dasturs (Zoroastrian priests), along with the creation of other miracle-tests, "with the intention of preventing self-appointed prophets from pretending."(45) 'Abdu'l-Bahá's explanation of this prophecy is as follows:
The interpretation of this prophecy is this: the first Dispensation to which it refers is the Muhammadan Dispensation during which the Sun of Truth stood still for ten days. Each day is reckoned as one century. The Muammadan Dispensation must have, therefore, lasted no less than one thousand years, which is precisely the period that has elapsed from the setting of the Star of the Imamate to the advent of the Dispensation proclaimed by the Báb. The second Dispensation referred to in this prophecy is the one inaugurated by the Báb Himself, which began in the year 1260 AH and was brought to a close in the year 1280 AH As to the third Dispensation - the Revelation proclaimed by Bahá'u'lláh - inasmuch as the Sun of Truth when attaining that station shineth in the plenitude of its meridian splendour, its duration hath been fixed for a period of one whole month, which is the maximum time taken by the sun to pass through a sign of the Zodiac. From this thou canst imagine the magnitude of the Bahá'í cycle - a cycle that must extend over a period of at least five hundred thousand years.(46)
This interpretation is complicated by the issue of religious allegiances and nationalistic aspirations. As mentioned, Sháh Bahrám was to lead a war, to vanquish Islamic overlords, and to re-establish the primacy of the Zoroastrian religion. In traditional Zoroastrian perspective, 'Abdu'l-Bahá's explanation involves a difficult paradox: while the Zoroastrian prophecies called for war, Bahá'u'lláh advocated peace. When the religion of Islam - a false religion from the Zoroastrian point of view - was supposed to have been extirpated from Iran, Bahá'u'lláh confirmed the truth of both religions. And while the Zoroastrian high priests were to have reclaimed their authority, Bahá'u'lláh proclaimed: "This is not the day whereon the high priests can command and exercise their authority. In your Book it is stated that the high priests will, on that Day, lead men far astray, and will prevent them from drawing nigh unto Him. He indeed is a high priest who hath seen the light and hastened unto the way leading to the Beloved."(47) To accept, in Bahá'í terms, prophecy-fulfilment is to negate such fulfilment in Zoroastrian terms.
It was symbolic exegesis that succeeded in inducing a suspension of disbelief in the realisation of, or vicarious participation in, the apocalyptic drama. The Zoroastrian texts were fulfilled through a negation of the literal text, in favour of an allegorising technique that proved to be a process of rewriting prophecy through reinterpretation. While the prophecies were invested with traditional authority, Bahá'í interpretations effectively created a new locus of authority. It is as though the prophecies themselves were overruled, through a curious appeal to their authority - the authority of scripture - combined with a radical reading that all but deconstructed the literal meaning.
Bahá'u'lláh's fulfilment of Zoroastrian prophecy was never meant to bear the test of textual and hermeneutical scrutiny. The new revelation was the new divine standard, the fresh locus of authority, the touchstone of truth, past and present. The fulfilment motif provided the eschatological climax at the crescendo of salvation-history. The old prophecies served as bridges into the Bahá'í era, the dawn of a new chiliasm or eschatological millennium. The old, mantic and vatic texts had served their purpose in the eyes of the Zoroastrian Bahá'ís. Prophecies, in the post-conversion experience, were only referentially meaningful. At first, Bahá'u'lláh was validated by the prophecies, when Zoroastrians embraced Bahá'u'lláh as the promised Sháh Bahrám. After becoming Bahá'ís, the reverse was true: It was Bahá'u'lláh who validated the prophecies concerning Sháh Bahrám. In effect, Bahá'u'lláh redefined the role of Sháh Bahrám.
In fairness to the Zoroastrian converts, while the Bahá'í religion did not restore Sasanian Zoroastrianism by overthrowing Islam, it most definitely superseded Islam and reclaimed the position of Zoroaster in the Bahá'í roster of prophets. And the transition was not as great as, say, conversion to the Bahá'í Faith from a Buddhist background. While the Bahá'í Faith is not, strictly speaking, a Persian religion, Zoroastrian converts could, culturally as well as religiously, feel somewhat at home in the new religion. For example, the Bahá'í (or Badí') calendar resembled the Zoroastrian calendar in some striking ways, most notably in preserving the ancient Iranian new year, Naw Rúz, celebrated at the vernal equinox, or first day of spring, and in using divine attributes to name all days, months and so on. That Bahá'u'lláh was Persian, and, moreover, had both royal and prophetic lineages, was another factor in his acceptance by Persian Zoroastrians. The essentially ethical character of the Bahá'í religion resonated strongly with the Zoroastrian ethic of "good thoughts, good words, good deeds," in marked contrast to the perceived misdeeds of the Arab, Turk, and Mongol overlords during the conquest of Iran, from which the Zoroastrians never fully recovered. The Bahá'í social system was superior in its egalitarianism, having abolished the Islamic dhimmí system which effectively relegated Zoroastrians to an inferior social status, with abbreviated rights and benighted prospects for meaningful amelioration under the Shí'í legal system. While the Bahá'í Faith did not fulfil Zoroastrian national aspirations, the conversion of Zoroastrians to the Bahá'í religion significantly contributed to the amelioration of the Zoroastrians of Iran, as Susan Stiles Maneck has shown.(48)
This is a call to Zoroastrian high priests, and, by extension, all Zoroastrians, to effectively fulfil their religion's highest ideals by abandoning it. In so doing, the new religion, the Bahá'í Faith, which purports to be a renewal of the essential teachings of the Zoroastrian religion and of all other world religions, would compensate this voluntary loss of the former religion by immortalizing Zoroaster within the Bahá'í canon of "Manifestations of God." Ironically, while Zoroastrianism has traditionally not allowed converts, every Bahá'í doctrinally becomes a Zoroastrian to the extent that he or she accepts the authenticity of the ancient Persian prophet.
According to Cereti, "the apocalyptic prophecy regarding the arrival of Wahrám should be interpreted as a political oracle heralding the return of a scion of the Sasanid house."(53) As such, the figure of Sháh Bahrám Varjávand "belongs to very early Islamic times."(54) Moreover, "his literary character was created from Sasanian epic material."(55) The original intent of the prophecies regarding Varjávand was nationalist and manifestly political, not to mention anti-Islamic or at least anti-Arab. Zoroastrian apocalypses express the longing for the restoration of royalty and religion. This is an historical-contemporary interpretation of Zoroastrian apocalyptic material. In an unpublished paper, Julie Meisami of the Oriental Institute at Oxford has demonstrated how the prophecies concerning the Zoroastrian "King from the East" were effectively transformed into Islamic prophecies, with their own distinct trajectories.(56)
As such, we can probably conclude that the prediction regarding the advent of Sháh Bahrám is a failed prophecy. It is not susceptible of fulfilment in literal terms. Considering that Zoroastrianism is a dying religion, due to its adamantine non-conversion policy which, sadly, probably dooms the faith-community to inexorable attrition, one must conclude that such prophecies can only be dismissed, unless they are radically reinterpreted. Those Zoroastrians who chose to do so, who elected, by faith, to embrace Bahá'u'lláh as Sháh Bahrám Varjávand, were obliged to abandon particular aspirations for universal ones, thus transforming Zoroastrian identity, and actualising prophecy by demilitarising and ultimately universalising it.
This paper has explored some theoretical tensions between modern scholarship and modern messiahship, as personified by the nineteenth-century world-prophet, Bahá'u'lláh. On comparative grounds, apocalyptic scenarios exhibit some universal features, such as lamentation, nostalgia, wish-image, ethnocentrism, and vengeance or vindication. Equally significant is how apocalyptic scenarios are fulfilled. When a truth claim is advanced by a messianic claimant, to suggest suasively that the time of the end is upon us, apocalyptic prophecies are appealed to as proof texts. This paper has argued that, at least in one case, the net effect of such a claim is to overrule the apocalypse itself, in which the apocalyptic scenario is effectively negated in the process of its being fulfilled.