In "Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh," Shoghi Effendi cites a prophecy interpreted by 'Abdu'l-Bahá in his exposition of the greatness of the Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh. Here is the text of Shoghi Effendi's translation of the words of the Master:
Thou hadst written that in the sacred texts 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. 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 Muhammadan 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 Bab. The second Dispensation referred to in this prophecy is the one inaugurated by the Bab Himself, which began in the year 1260 A.H. and was brought to a close in the year 1280 A.H. 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 splendor 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.
The first two parts of this explanation should be familiar to students of the Bahá'í Writings but the third and most interesting part, concerning the length of the "Bahá'í Cycle", remains a bit cryptic in its interpretation. In order to attempt an understanding of this interpretation in its entirety, a review of certain concepts in Judaism, Christianity and Islam will be necessary, as well as a review of ancient astrological concepts and modern astronomical findings. An integration of these leads to an intriguing way in which to understand the Master's words.
Christian scholars for centuries have looked for the meaning of prophetic verses in the Torah, the other Jewish writings included in the "Old Testament" of the Christian Bible, and in the "New Testament", particularly the prophecies found in the Gospels and the Revelation of St. John the Divine. A frequently used key is the equating of a "day" in a sacred verse with a year in earth's time. As 'Abdu'l-Bahá noted in His explanation of prophecies in the Book of Daniel, "The day of the Lord is one year". A footnote to this statement references Numbers 14:34 and Ezekiel 4:6. Let us look at the actual text, in the King James version of the Bible:
"After the number of days in which ye searched the land, even forty days, each day for a year, shall ye bear your iniquities, even forty years…"
"For I have laid upon thee the years of their iniquity, according to the number of the days, three hundred and ninety days: so shall thou bear the iniquity of the house of Israel. And when thou hast accomplished them, lie again on thy right side, and thou shalt bear the iniquity of the house of Judah forty days: I have appointed thee each day for a year."
This same understanding led the Reverend William Miller to predict the return of Christ between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844. His chronology agreed exactly with the Master's explanation in "Some Answered Questions". The first passage above, from Numbers, does indeed draw a correlation between one event in years and another event in days, but it does not initially seem to indicate that this would be an important method of deciphering prophecies. However the second quote, from Ezekiel, considerably strengthens the impression that this equivalence is used in other sacred writings, including prophetic ones.
Although this day-year equivalence is one of the most commonly used methods for deciphering prophetic statements in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, interestingly this equivalence is not used in two of the three successive explanations, for each part of this brief Zoroastrian prophecy. Even more interesting, a different key is used to interpret each successive part.
The initial statement, regarding the sun standing still for 10 days is interpreted as referencing the period, or "Dispensation" of Islam, with each day representing a full century. These are centuries in the Muslim calendar which is a lunar, not a solar calendar. A solar calendar such as the well-known "Gregorian" Christian calendar, measures a year as 365.25 days in length. The extra quarter-day is made up every four years by a "leap-day" in February extending it to 29 days. In the modern era we sometimes have additional "leap-minutes" and even "leap-seconds" to keep the year at exactly one full rotation around the sun. Keep in mind the simple fact that a "year" represents the length of time the earth takes to complete one full revolution or orbit around the sun. A day represents the length of time the earth takes to complete one full revolution around its own axis, and is divided of course into 24 hourly segments. Like a spinning top, the earth is constantly revolving around a north-south axis, while it also circles the sun. Viewed from anywhere in space north of us, the earth is spinning in a counter-clockwise direction, from west to east. Our days are probably the oldest means of keeping time, because our life cycles are intimately connected with sunrise, morning, mid-day, evening and night. The earth's "north-south" axis, around which it spins, is not exactly at 90 degrees to its plane of orbit around the sun. The plane on which the earth revolves around the sun is called its "orbital plane" or ecliptic. The degree to which the earth's axis of spin is tilted from a right angle to this is called the "obliquity of the ecliptic". This represents both the angle between 90-degrees from the ecliptic and our north-south axis of spin, and similarly the angle between the earth's equator [the plane at right-angles to our axis of spin] and the ecliptic or our plane of orbit around the sun. This angle is approximately 23.4 degrees; a moderate tilt. Still more complications for understanding earth's motion are introduced because the magnetic axis, an axis from earth's magnetic north to magnetic south, is not exactly the same as its rotational axis, and furthermore the earth's crust sometimes shifts slightly in the way it's aligned with our rotational axis. Although this can sound confusing, most of it appears to actually be relevant to our understanding the explanation of this Zoroastrian prophecy. Picking up and manipulating a globe of the earth, or any roughly spherical object which you can spin around, should make the explanations above fairly obvious.
Now that we've briefly reviewed days, solar years and the earth's plane of orbit and axis of spin, let's remind ourselves about lunar years. The ancients recognized that the moon appears to orbit the earth once every 30 days. Once again, it's actually quite a bit more complicated than that but the moon's appearance in the sky, in relation to the sun and therefore to our day-night cycle repeats itself roughly every 29.5 days, which becomes 30 days if we round up to full days. If the months are all set at 30 days in length to match this lunar cycle, 12 months adds up to only 360 days [12 x 30 = 360] and not 365 days, as in a solar calendar. Therefore, unless 5 more days are added somewhere in between months, a lunar calendar will end its year 5 days earlier than the solar calendar does [or even six days earlier, in a leap-year]. The Moslem calendar is in fact a lunar calendar of only 360 days. It begins with the "hejira" of Mohammad, the year in which He fled from persecution in Mecca and went to Medina, which was in June, 622 A.D. of the Christian calendar. Because every year of the Moslem calendar is shorter than a year in the Christian solar calendar, dates in the Moslem reckoning always have to be corrected not just by adding 622, but also by adjusting for this difference in length. Over many centuries this difference becomes quite significant.
To the Shi'ite faction of Islam, the most important figures after the Prophet Muhammad are the 12 great "Imams", beginning with Ali. Ali was Mohammad's son-in-law, married to Mohammad's daughter Fatimih. Furthermore he was in the same tribe as Mohammad and related to him by blood. Mohammad verbally designated Ali to be His successor after His death. Shi'ites believe that this succession of spiritual guidance was continued from Ali to his two sons Hasan and then Husayn, and likewise from Husayn's male descendants down to a 12th Imam. Due to rivalry among factions in Islam, all these descendants faced great opposition and most if not all of them had violent ends. There was particular confusion about the 12th Imam in this chain—as to whether he even existed, and if he did, what became of him. What is quite clear is that the 11th Imam died in the year 260 A.H. [A.H. = "after the hejira"] of the Moslem calendar. 'Abdu'l-Bahá points to this historical fact in His explanation that the sun standing still for 10 days represents "10 centuries", because the Bab proclaimed His Mission in the Moslem year 1,260 A.H., exactly 10 centuries or one thousand lunar years after the disappearance of the 11th Imam in 260 A.H.
That covers the first part of this tripartite Zoroastrian prophecy. The second part states that next, the sun will stand still for 20 days. In this case, the Master explains, each day is exactly one year [again, in the Moslem or lunar calendar], and this was the whole length between the onset of the Bab's Mission in 1260 A.H. [1844 A.D.] and Bahá'u'lláh's declaration that He was the succeeding Prophet promised by the Bab, while He was in the Ridvan gardens outside Baghdad in 1279 A.H. [1863 A.D.]. Bahá'u'lláh's experience of revelation actually began while He was incarcerated in the Black Pit [Siyah-Chal] in Teheran, in 1853 A.D., 10 years earlier. Thus, depending on whether the interval to Bahá'u'lláh's revelation is counted, or the interval until He publicly announced His Mission, the period of the Bab's Revelation is variously stated as nine years or 19 years. The above figure of 20 years is only arrived at by counting the years 1844-1863 inclusively, and both of these events occurred in the springtime.
Now we come to the most perplexing part of this prophecy and its explanation. That is, the sun is then promised to stand still in the heavens for a full 30 days. 'Abdu'l-Bahá points out that 30 days is the time taken by the sun to pass through a "sign of the Zodiac" [His actual words are given as "the maximal time"], and then without further elaboration, He equates this to a period of "at least five hundred thousand years". My task is twofold: first, to determine whether this relates to a lunar calendar, a solar calendar or something else altogether. Second: to make sense of equating a sign of the Zodiac with five hundred thousand years.
We must begin by thinking about days in a solar calendar, because the reference here is to the sun passing through a sign of the Zodiac, and not to the moon. It will be helpful now to really understand what is meant by the sun "passing through a sign of the Zodiac".
The ancients of course were intensely interested in heavenly objects such as the stars and planets. They observed how, in the course of one night, stars in the sky slowly revolved in the sky. We know today that it is the earth revolving around its axis, not the stars revolving around the earth, but for ages most people thought that the earth was stationary and that the stars slowly revolved in some heavenly sphere.
Furthermore, they noticed that in the course of a year the position of the sun with respect to the stars [or if we wish, the position of the stars with respect to the sun] also slowly revolved, in a full circle. The ancients looking at the stars imagined many shapes, which we call "constellations". Almost everyone is familiar with at least the most obvious constellations in the Northern hemisphere: mighty Orion the hunter, with his glittering belt. Taurus the bull, charging at him, his red eye [the red giant star Aldebaran] the brightest star in the constellation, glaring malevolently. Sirius the dog star, representing Orion's faithful hunting dog at his feet. The "big dipper" and the "little dipper", shaped something like bent ladles, but also known as Ursa Major and Ursa Minor [big and little bears]; Ursa Minor containing the "north star" or "pole star" Polaris, which is the most visible star in the heavens near where the north end of the earth's axis of spin is pointing. Polaris thus, for the ancient navigators, told them where north was and was a guide if they sailed at sea without sight of land.
Some of these constellations were called "constellations of the zodiac", because they would cross the earth's plane of ecliptic in its orbit around the sun. Put more plainly, in the course of a night they might rise up above the horizon, or sink below it. Also, during the course of a year the constellations would appear to slowly revolve around the sun's rising and setting points. A visual example will prove why this is so. Put a lamp on a table in the middle of a room. Imagine the lamp to be our sun. Imagine yourself to be the planet earth and imagine the four walls of the room, with whatever pictures are hanging on them, pieces of furniture up against them etc. to be the stars in the sky. Now walk yourself slowly in a circle around the lamp while looking at it. This represents the earth orbiting the sun. Notice what is appearing behind the lamp as you look at it. Slowly, each of the four walls appears behind the lamp as you circle around it. After making one complete circle, whatever was immediately behind the lamp is again immediately behind it.
For the ancients the constellations near the horizon represented the backdrop for the sun, just before it rose in the morning and just after it set at night. They divided the sky into 12 equal segments, like slices of a circular pie, with a particular constellation present in each segment. These are our "signs of the Zodiac": Aries being the constellation at the sun's rising point in the vernal equinox [springtime], followed by Taurus the bull, Gemini the twins, Cancer the crab, Leo the Lion, Virgo the virgin, Libra the balance or scales, Scorpio the scorpion, Sagitarius the archer on a horse, Capricorn the goat [or "sea-goat"], Aquarius the water-bearer with a large jug of water, Pisces the fish, followed once again by Aries in the following spring. The days assigned to each "sign of the Zodiac" are the days in which the sun appears to rise in that constellation's sector of the sky; for example the sun rises with Aries as a backdrop from March 21 to April 20.
Thirty days is not exactly the maximum time it takes the sun to transit a zodiac sign; after all, we recall that the solar year is 365.25 days therefore 12 equal months would have to each be 30.44 days long. In the traditional Gregorian calendar, the days in a month vary from short February at 28 to longer months of 31 days each. But rounded to full days, the time that the sun spends in any one sign does come out to 30. If we started at any random day of the year and ask how many more days until the sun appears in the next zodiac sign, depending on which day we picked it could be as soon as tomorrow, or as long as one month, if the day we picked happened to be the sun's very first day in that zodiac sign.
Therefore: the signs of the zodiac really relate to solar years; to the earth's yearly revolution around the sun and how this changes the position of the sun against a backdrop of the "fixed stars", which are so remotely far away from us that in one lifetime, or even over many centuries they don't appear to move at all, with respect to each other.
Now that we've explained the signs of the zodiac and how the sun seems to move among them, we have to make this equate to "at least five hundred thousand years." To do this requires considering another heavenly cycle, or really several cycles, commonly called the "precession of the equinox". More modern terms include "axial precession" and "general precession", lunisolar precession" and "precession of the equator". Recall the analogy of the earth spinning around our north-south axis like a spinning top. Also recall that the earth's axis of rotation is tilted somewhat, 23.4 degrees away from what would be exactly vertical to our plane of orbit around the sun. When a top is first set to spinning on a flat surface, it spins very smoothly. As it loses energy however, it spins more slowly. Furthermore, the axis of its rotation starts wobbling: it starts making little circles itself. These circles start out quite small, and as the top loses more energy the circles become larger. Our earth's axis of rotation wobbles around like a somewhat lazy top. The axis of the earth's rotation makes one complete circle (at its present rate) in 25,772 years. The "friction" which caused this wobbling of the earth's axis of rotation is mostly due to the earth's interaction with the moon, which also causes the ocean tides and has gradually changed the length of a day (the speed of earth's spin). In the past, the earth rotated more rapidly than it does today and the days were a little shorter. In the past century, atomic clocks indicate the earth's day has lengthened by a whopping 1.7 milliseconds; the average rate of slowing over the last 1300 years has been about 2.3 milliseconds per century, and it is estimated that 600 million years ago the earth was spinning fast enough that a day was about 21 hours long. However, prior to 600 million years it seems the rate of slowing of the earth's spin was considerably less. Enormously complex calculations related to this can be reduced to a simple observation that the earth and the entire solar system are in a state of "dynamic equilibrium". Some changes are very regular and predictable. Other changes are irregular and unpredictable. Most often the irregular and unpredictable changes are slow, and they also tend to balance out over long time intervals. The most uncomfortable changes of course are sudden, dramatic and irreversible, but large-scale changes like this happen over time frames of millions or billions of years.
What I believe 'Abdu'l-Bahá was getting at, by comparing the sun "standing still for 30 days" to the length of time for a change in zodiac sign, is simply this: in this final part of the Zoroastrian prophecy "one day" equals one complete revolution, not of the earth around its axis of rotation but instead, one full revolution of the axis of rotation itself. Over 25 to 26,000 years the axis of the earth's rotation revolves, with a 23.4 degree tilt, around an axis at a right angle to our orbital plane around the sun. Thirty of these days, 30 x 25,772 years = 773,160 years!
Accounting for this "precession of the equinoxes" appears to be the only way to interpret "30 days", relate them to the signs of the zodiac, and make the total equal "at least five hundred thousand years." Obviously 773,160 years are substantially more than five hundred thousand. There are generally three ways in which to view this discrepancy.
First, one could imagine that over the next several hundred thousand years the length of time the earth takes for one complete "wobble" of its axis of rotation might speed up, such that 30 complete circles will end up closer to a half-million than three quarters of a million years. However, changes in the "rate of precession" large enough to do that, given our current astronomical knowledge, appear to be very unlikely.
The second way to make sense of this is simply to observe that indeed 773,160 years are more than five hundred thousand years, and thus 'Abdu'l-Bahá's statement of "at least five hundred thousand" is true by this calculation. Viewed in that way, perhaps the length of the "Bahá'í cycle" will be closer to one-half million just as He has stated, and the Zoroastrian prophecy may have used the figure of "30 days" to give an orderly progression from 10 to 20 to 30 days, this final figure meaning simply, "a really long time" and that the Master's explanation is closer to the truth of it than this 30-day calculation gives us.
The final way to view this is that the Master simply gave a nice round figure of 500,000 (stated as a lower boundary) in His brief explanation, and that the Zoroastrian prophecy calculated according to this "precession of the equinoxes" interpretation is the more precise meaning. In that case, the "Bahá'í cycle" would last even longer than we have realized to date: closer to three-quarters of a million than half a million years!
A related phenomenon of uncertainty with a lower boundary, of course appears in the Kitab-i-Aqdas, in which Bahá'u'lláh unequivocally states that the next Manifestation of God will appear after at least a full thousand years, and 'Abdu'l-Bahá indicated perhaps even some "thousands" of years! Is there, in reality, some type of uncertainty in how long these intervals will be, perhaps based on mankind's response to divine guidance over very long time frames? To even pose that question involves intricate philosophical ponderings over the interplay of destiny and free will. I prefer to avoid all that and simply to observe that we seem able, on the basis of precise modern measurements of the "precession of the equinox", to make sense of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's interpretation and to realize that the length of the "Bahá'í cycle" must be somewhere between one-half and three-quarter of a million years!
Finally of course, we must understand what is meant here by "the Bahá'í cycle". That goes far beyond the period specifically of Bahá'u'lláh's Revelation. Instead it refers to a vast "cycle of fulfillment", somewhat comparable to the "Adamic" or the prophetic cycle, which stretches an unknown length of time into the past, well before our recorded history. We know there have been many Manifestations in our past, but we do not know how many. Our recorded history and oral traditions seem only to go back to the last ice age. That ice age was severe enough to have obliterated all our records of mankind's history prior to that, but we do know the history of man goes back much earlier than the last ice age.
The hallmark of Bahá'u'lláh's Revelation is the unity and the beginning of the maturity of the human race. World unity, once established, will not be lost again. As scriptures put it, this is the "day that shall not be followed by night."[10,11] To what heights the human race will attain one-half to three quarters of a million years in the future is pretty much impossible for us to predict at present. What would a cycle beyond this "Bahá'í cycle" or cycle of fulfillment entail? I doubt that travel to other planets, and even to other solar systems would be the next big new leap by that time. Similarly, unless something unforeseeable happens in the interim, the earth itself should still be quite inhabitable many millions of years into the future. Perhaps as we approach a half-million or three-quarter million years in the future, mankind will have advanced so much further than we can imagine; perhaps it will have merged to such an extent with other intelligent species in our neighborhood, that this will mark a very different phase of our physical and spiritual evolution, one in which we no longer even think of ourselves as "a race of people from planet earth", but will enter into a very different vision: seeing ourselves as citizens of our galaxy.
1. "The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh," Shoghi Effendi; Bahá'í Publishing Trust, Wilmette Illinois U.S.; 1955 pg. 102
2. "Some Answered Questions," 'Abdu'l-Bahá; Bahá'í World Center Haifa, Israel, 2014, pg.47.
3. "King James Bible," 1611 ed. Reprinted in Keystone Giant Print Verse Reference Edition, Broadman & Holmen Publishers, Nashville Tennessee, 1975, Numbers 14:34
4. ibid, Ezekiel 4:6
5. "Evidence From Scripture and History of the Second Coming of Christ about the year 1843, exhibited in a course of lectures", by William Miller; published by Joshua V. Himes, Boston, 1842; reproduced online at earlysda.com/miller/evidence1.html.
6. See reference list under "Zodiac" in Wikipedia online.
7. See reference list under "Axial Precession" in Wikipedia online.
8. "Kitab-i-Aqdas," Bahá'u'lláh; Bahá'í Publications of Australia (undated) copyright 1993 Universal House of Justice, pg 32 [paragraph 37]
9. "Bahá'í World Faith," Bahá'u'lláh & 'Abdu'l-Bahá; Bahá'í Publishing Trust Wilmette Illinois USA, 1966 pg. 358.
10. "The Summons of the Lord of Hosts," Bahá'u'lláh; Bahá'í World Center, Haifa Israel, 2002, pg. 34 [paragraph 63].
11. "King James Bible"; see Revelation 22:5, Isaiah 60:19; Zechariah 14:7