Occasional Papers in Shaykhi, Babi and Baha'i Studies

Walbridge, Essays and Notes on Babi and Baha'i History








Chapter Five

The Bahai Faith in Iran



Three Clerics and a Prince of Isfahan:
Background to Bahaullah's Epistle to the Son of the Wolf


     Among the defining events in the development of the Baha’i community of Iran in the time of Bahaullah was the judicial murder of two wealthy and prominent Baha’i merchants in Isfahan early in 1879, the result of an extortion plot that got out of hand.  Members of the respected Nahri family, the two brothers were entitled by Bahaullah “the King and Beloved of Martyrs.”  The incident itself is well known.  The following sections discuss the Tablet that Bahaullah wrote in immediate reaction to the murders and four prominent opponents of the Baha’i Faith in Isfahan: three clerics and a prince-governor.

On the event see Balyuzi, Eminent 33–44.  Ishraq-Khavari, Nurayn, is an account of the incident with biographies of the brothers.  For contemporary foreign accounts see Momen, Babi 274-77.


Lawh-i Burhan

     The Tablet of the Proof was revealed in 1879 as a rebuke to the two clerics—the “Wolf” and the “She-Serpent"—responsible for the martyrdoms of the King and Beloved of Martyrs in Isfahan.  The Imam-Jum‘a of the city, Mir Muhammad-Husayn Khatunabadi, had owed the brothers a large sum of money.  It was generally thought that their arrest as Baha’is was a pretext to void this debt and allow the governor, the Imam-Jum‘a, and Shaykh Muhammad-Baqir Isfahani, another leading cleric, to seize and divide the brothers’ extensive properties.  Though the governor had received orders to send the two brothers to Tehran where they would most likely have been released, the two clerics were able to force him to permit their executions.

     The killing of the two brothers—members of a prominent merchant family in Isfahan and among the leading Baha’is in Iran—shocked and angered the Baha’is and their many friends, both Iranian and European.  Bahaullah immediately wrote the letter known as the Lawh-i Burhan sharply rebuking the two clergymen.  It reached Tehran only thirty-eight days after the killings.  Mirza Abu al-Fadl Gulpaygani, on Bahaullah’s instructions, sent a copy of the letter to each of the clergymen.  There is no record of their reactions.

     The principal theme of the Lawh-i Burhan is contrast between the pretensions of the two clergymen to be exponents of the Law and faith of Islam and the injustice and cruelty of their killing two descendants of the Prophet himself.  Most of the tablet is addressed to Shaykh Muhammad-Baqir, the more influential of the two.  Bahaullah denounces the injustice of sentencing the two brothers to death.  Bahaullah says that there is no hatred in his own heart for the Shaykh, who has been deceived by his own folly.  Had he realized what he had done, he would have cast himself into the fire.

     Bahaullah compares the Shaykh to the Jewish priests who condemned Christ to death and to the leaders of the cult of idols in Mecca who opposed Muhammad.  They could offer no proof to justify their actions, nor could the Shaykh for his.  (This is the source of the title of the tablet.)  In fact, the Shaykh followed his passions, not his Lord, and abandoned the Law of God—the knowledge of which is the source of the authority of the Muslim clergy—and followed the law of his lower self.  True learning is to recognize the station of Bahaullah.  If the Shaykh were to subdue his passions, he would understand the call of Bahaullah and his sins would be forgiven.  Bahaullah and his followers, as their actions testified, had no fear of the Shaykh’s cruelty.

     Bahaullah says that leadership had made the Shaykh proud.  But there is no honor in being followed by the worthless and ignorant: it was such people who supported the priests who put Christ to death.  Bahaullah refers here to three of his own works: tablets to the Sultan and Napoleon III and the Kitab-i Iqan.

     Bahaullah digresses to address the Muslim clergy in general, warning them that neither their wealth nor the religious sciences in which they prided themselves would profit them.  The Shah, Bahaullah implied, feared to interfere with wolves such as the Shaykh.  But the Shaykh is like the last sunlight on the mountaintop, soon to fade away like those who had opposed God in the past.  Truly, Muhammad and Fatima the Chaste wept at his deeds.  The Muslim clergy had opposed everyone who had tried to improve the condition of Islam.  Bahaullah points as a warning to the disastrous war of 1877 in which Turkey had lost much of her territory in the Balkans.

     Now Bahaullah turns from the “Wolf” to the “She-Serpent"—Mir Muhammad-Husayn, the Imam-Jum‘a.  His denunciation of this man is even sharper than that of the Shaykh.  There is no hint that this man deceived himself about the injustice of his actions.  Soon, Bahaullah promises, “the breaths of chastisement will seize thee. . . ”  He will not, Bahaullah prophesies, consume the wealth that he had pillaged.

     When Edward Browne visited Isfahan a few years after the martyrdoms, he heard of “the terrible letter” threatening the two clergymen with divine chastisement.  Most likely it immediately began circulating in manuscript among the Baha’is.  It would have been convincing, for its prophecies of disgrace and death for the two clergymen were soon fulfilled.  It was published in at least two early collections of the writings of Bahaullah, Aqdas-i Buzurg (1314/1896) 200–208 and Majmua (Cairo, 1920) 53–66.  Bahaullah Himself quotes lengthy passages in Epistle to the Son of the Wolf—itself addressed to Aqa Najafi, the son of Shaykh Muhammad-Baqir: pp. 79–86, 97–103.  The entire text is included in the Arabic and English editions of Tablets of Bahaullah, Sect. 14.  Almost the entire text of the tablet was translated by Shoghi Effendi in Bahaullah’s Epistle to the Son of the Wolf..

     Bahaullah, Epistle, refers to the tablet as “Lawh-i Burhan.”  It is also known as “Lawh-i Raqsha’” (“Tablet of the She-Serpent”).

For text and translation see Bahaullah, Tablets,, sect. 14.  Taherzadeh 4:91–102.  Ishraq-Khavari, Ganj 145–46.  Balyuzi, Baha’u’llah 382.  Mazandarani, Asrar 2:40–41.  Ishraq-Khavari, Da’irat 13:2021, 2057.  Ishraq-Khavari, Nurayn 245–53.


Mir Muhammad-Husayn Khatunabadi,the She-Serpent

     The cleric known in Baha’i tradition as “the She-Serpent” (Raqsha’) was the Imam-Jum‘a of Isfahan and one of those responsible for the execution in 1879 of the Nahri brothers, the “King” and “Beloved of Martyrs.”  The Khatunabadis were the descendants of Mir Muhammad-Salih, a distinguished scholar of the early eighteenth century, and had held the position of Imam-Jum‘ah of Isfahan for about a century.  Mir Muhammad-Husayn was the brother of Mir Sayyid Muhammad Sultan al-‘Ulama’, the Bab’s host in Isfahan in 1846.  On his brother’s death in 1874, he inherited the family office, thus making him one of the two or three highest ranked clergy in the city.  (The Imam-Jum’ah was the leader of Friday prayers at the most important mosque in the city.  The holders of this office were, at least nominally, appointed by the government, although often the office was effectively hereditary.)  He does not seem to have lent any particular distinction to his office. 

     Mir Muhammad-Husayn’s earliest contact with the Babis was when his brother sent him out of the city to meet the Bab, who was coming from Shiraz.  Since the Bab stayed for some time in his brother’s house, Mir Muhammad-Husayn must have met him a number of times.

     Mir Muhammad-Husayn’s importance in Baha’i history arises from the curious fact that his bankers were Baha’is: the three Nahri brothers, a family of wealthy merchants who had become Babis at the time of the Bab’s visits and who were now among the most important and well-known Baha’is of Iran.  They would routinely pay the Imam-Jum‘a’s debts as they came in.  The account eventually reached the very large sum of 18,000 tomans.  In early 1879 the brothers presented this bill for payment.  Mir Muhammad-Husayn stalled, asking for an audit.  Shaykh Muhammad-Baqir, the most powerful cleric in Isfahan and a bitter opponent of the Baha’is—proposed that the three Nahri brothers, well-known as Baha’is—be arrested as heretics.  Their property would then be forfeit and could be divided among the two clerics and the governor, whose cooperation would be necessary.  The three brothers were arrested, two of them while guests in the Imam-Jum‘a’s house.  The youngest recanted and was released.  The two older brothers refused and were eventually executed at the insistence of the clergy.  Mir Muhammad-Husayn and Shaykh Muhammad-Baqir personally delivered the death warrants to the prison.

     After the executions of the two brothers, the Imam-Jum‘a sent his servants to seize their property and loot their houses, many of their possessions being extremely valuable.  A few days later a dispute broke out between him and Zill al-Sultan, the governor.  Several weeks later Mir Muhammad-Husayn tried to force the issue by marching on the governorate with his supporters to demand a larger share of the plunder.  When disorders continued, troops were sent from Tehran, the Imam-Jum‘a was exiled to Mashhad, and his property was plundered.  He was allowed to return from his exile in Mashhad a year or so later.  He died in Isfahan two years after his victims on 21 June 1881 of a repulsive tumor on his neck.  He was buried in an unmarked grave by a few porters, no one else daring to risk the anger of the governor by attending his funeral.  When the merchants closed the bazaar to mourn his death, the governor’s attendants forced them to reopen their shops.

     Baha’i tradition reports that when someone expressed doubts about the wisdom of killing the Nahri brothers, he had said, “Their blood be on my neck.”  Thus his gruesome death was interpreted as a punishment of his crime and the fulfillment of Bahaullah’s prophecy of his downfall.

Momen, Babi 271–74.  Balyuzi, Eminent 33–44.  Bahaullah, Tablets, “Lawh-i Burhan” para. 14, pp. 213–16.  Taherzadeh 4:73–102.  ‘Abd al-Baha, Makatib 200–1, 232–33.  Nabil, 201.  Browne, “Babis of Persia,” p. 490–91.


Shaykh Muhammad-Baqir Isfahani,the Wolf"

     “The Wolf” was a leading mujtahid of Isfahan responsible for a number of persecutions of Baha’is.  He born in 1234/1818–19 and was the son of a prominent cleric in Isfahan.  His mother was the daughter of Ja‘far Kashif al-Ghita’, one of the most important exponents of the Usuli legal school.  Muhammad-Baqir went to Najaf, where he studied jurisprudence with the two greatest Shi‘i legal scholars of the time, Muhammad-Hasan an-Najafi and Murtada al-Ansari.  Having completed his studies, he returned to Isfahan to assume the position of leader of prayers in the Royal Mosque.  About the same time, the old Imam-Jum‘a and several other important clerics in Isfahan died, abruptly making him the highest-ranking cleric in the city.  He acquired many students and great religious authority in Isfahan and surrounding regions.  He wrote several books, none especially important.  Most of Shaykh Muhammad-Baqir’s efforts went into building up his religious, political, and economic power.  His political position was such that he was sometimes able to challenge the governor directly, doing such things as inflicting the death penalty against the wishes of the authorities.  He also acquired great wealth, at least partly by hoarding grain in times of famine.

     In 1876 he was forced by the authorities to leave Isfahan and retire to Mashhad.  He then went to Tehran, was reconciled to Zill al-Sultan, the governor, and returned to Isfahan on 16 April 1876.  In 1883 he fell from grace once more, being forced to leave the city after the humiliation of having his wife seduced by the governor.  He died in Safar 1301/December 1883, shortly after arriving at Najaf.

     Shaykh Muhammad-Baqir had a number of children, several of them later prominent clerics in Isfahan.  The most important was Muhammad-Taqi, better known as Aqa Najafi or to the Baha’is “the Son of the Wolf."

     Shaykh Muhammad-Baqir was a relentless foe of heresy and waged a twenty-year battle against Shaykhis, Babis, and especially Baha’is.  In 1864, he had several hundred Babis of Najafabad arrested and wanted to put them all to death.  More moderate clerics prevented this, but four were eventually killed—two of whom were under the protection of the Shah—and many others beaten and robbed.

     In 1874, shortly before the arrival of Zill al-Sultan, the new governor, he instigated a major pogrom against the Baha’is of Isfahan.  About twenty were arrested, while hundreds of others took refuge in the office of the British telegraph company and the houses of the Europeans in the city.  Shaykh Muhammad-Baqir proclaimed from his pulpit that Muslims were free to kill Baha’is and to do as they wished with their property and women.  The garrison intervened to restore order, and eventually the Shah stopped the persecutions.

     In 1878 a Baha’i from the village of Talkhuncha, Mulla Kazim, was arrested there and delivered into the hands of Shaykh Muhammad-Baqir.  When he refused to recant his faith, he was publicly beheaded in the Maydan-i Shah.  His body was abused by the mob.  Two other Baha’is were also arrested.  One was severely beaten and his ears were cut off.  A number of Baha’i houses were also attacked.

     In March 1879 Shaykh Muhammad-Baqir; Mir Muhammad-Husayn, the new Imam-Jum‘a; and Zill al-Sultan plotted to kill three Baha’i Nahri brothers.  Zill al-Sultan tried to withdraw from the conspiracy when he was ordered to send two of the brothers to Tehran, but some fifty clergymen, accompanied by their supporters, closed the bazaar and marched to the governorate.  Zill al-Sultan agreed to endorse a death sentence issued by the clergy.  Shaykh Muhammad-Baqir and the Imam-Jum‘a personally supervised the execution.

     After this last incident Bahaullah gave Shaykh Muhammad-Baqir the title “Wolf” (Dhi’b) for his cruelty, denouncing him in the Lawh-i Burhan ("Tablet of the Proof").  In another tablet (Bahaullah, Athar 2:197–98, evidently written at the time of one of the Shaykh’s exiles, he prophesies his final complete downfall.

     After the Shaykh’s death, his son Muhammad-Taqi—better known as Aqa Najafi or the “Son of the Wolf"—assumed his place as prayer leader in the Royal Mosque and carried on the crusade against the Baha’is.

Amin, A‘yan 9:186.  Momen, Babi 243, 513, 268–74.  Balyuzi, Eminent 33–40, 134, 259.  Bahaullah, Tablets, 203–26.  ‘Abd al-Baha, Makatib 201, 232.  Bahaullah, Athar 2:197–98.  Brown, “Babis of Persia” 491.


Aqa Najafi,the Son of the Wolf”

     Shaykh Muhammad-Taqi Najafi—usually called Aqa Najafi, and entitled by Bahaullah “Son of the Wolf”—was a bitter opponent of the Baha’is.  He was born on 17 Rabi‘ II 1262/14 April 1846, the son of Shaykh Muhammad-Baqir Isfahani, who was the leader of prayers at the Royal Mosque in Isfahan.  He was related by blood and marriage to many prominent ‘ulama.  He studied under his father in Isfahan and then went to Najaf where he studied the usual subjects under Mirzay-i Shirazi, the highest-ranking Shi‘i cleric of the time, and others.  Returning to Isfahan, he was associated with his father and assumed his father’s position in the Royal Mosque on his death in 1883.  His title “Aqa Najafi” stressed his claim to be regarded as one of the Najaf circle of religious scholars.

     Building on the wealth and power accumulated by his father, Najafi became the most powerful cleric in Isfahan and one of the wealthiest men of the city.  For over thirty years he waged a bitter struggle for control of Isfahan with Zill al-Sultan, the Qajar prince-governor.  In the process he accumulated vast wealth, which he distributed generously to students and other clerics.  The rise of his power in Isfahan was aided by the fall of Zill al-Sultan from royal favor in 1888.

     Despite his hatred for the representatives of the Qajar dynasty and his early support for the nationalist revolt against the tobacco concession in 1891–92, his support for the constitutional revolution was ambiguous and inconsistent.  He was criticized and mistrusted by many of the constitutionalist leaders, some of whom he had denounced as heretics and Babis (which, indeed, some were).

     Like his father before him, Aqa Najafi was a bitter and ruthless opponent of the Baha’is.  Najafi was one of the clergy who had signed the death warrant of the two Nahri brothers and took an active role in forcing the governor to carry out the sentence.  After his father’s death, Najafi assumed the leading role in the persecution of Baha’is in central Iran.  He was largely responsible for the persecutions in Sida in 1889, in Najafabad in 1889, 1899, and 1905, and in Isfahan and Yazd in 1903.  In addition to his activities in Isfahan and its vicinity, he wrote to ‘ulama in other cities urging them to persecute the Baha’is.  He also harassed the Muslims who attended the Christian missionary schools and the Jews.  Such was Najafi’s hatred of the Baha’is that he is said to have prohibited the recitation of the famous Ramadan dawn prayer, traditionally thought to contain the greatest name of God, because it contained the name “Baha.”  Though the leading ‘ulama in Najaf did not usually openly endorse Najafi’s pogroms, they did not repudiate him and helped prevent the government from acting against him.

     Despite Najafi’s thirty-year crusade against the Baha’is, he is best known among Baha’is for the Epistle to the Son of the Wolf.  Bahaullah’s last major work, this book is addressed to Aqa Najafi and contains Bahaullah’s own summary of the history and teachings of his religion.  The “Shaykh” addressed throughout the book is Najafi.

     Aqa Najafi had fifteen children by three permanent and two temporary wives.  Several of his children were of moderate prominence in clerical circles in Isfahan, as their descendants are still.  Najafi is variously said to have written forty or a hundred books.  He published a number of them, but it is said that some of these were actually written by others.

     His wealth is also a source of controversy.  Though a clerical source speaks of his generosity, there seems little doubt that much of his wealth was ill-gotten.  He cooperated with the governor to corner the market in wheat during a famine.  On one occasion he had an official tortured and killed who had complained that Najafi had hoarded hundreds of tons of wheat while people starved.  He threatened revenue officers to avoid paying taxes.  The wealthy of Isfahan suspected that the Baha’is he attacked were chosen for the wealth that might be seized from them, and they feared him, even if they were not themselves Baha’is.

     Aqa Najafi’s character is a matter of disagreement.  The clerical biographers generally praise him.  “He was among the great scholars and clerics of Isfahan. . . He was almost without peer through the centuries in his political skill and ability to deal with the government.” (Makarim.) He has also been called a murderer, opportunist, hoarder, and plagiarist.  He was hated in his day by the government, foreign diplomats, and missionaries, and feared above all others by the Baha’is.  His fellow clergy admired him, then and now, as a zealous defender of their faith.

     He died 11 Sha‘ban 1332/5 July 1914 in Isfahan and was buried near the Maydan-i Shah in Isfahan.

EIr, s.v. “Aqa Najafi.” *** Makarim 1662–67. Amin, A‘yan, 9:196.  Momen, Babi 280–88, 363, 376–85, 395–96, 426–36, 514.  Balyuzi, Eminent 38, 132–33, 151-53, 259.  Momen, Shi‘i 133, 140–41.  Algar, Religion 16, 102, 128, 173, 180–81, 209, 212, 220, 231–32. Bahaullah, Ishraqat 40.  Ishraq-Khavari, Da’irat 1:46, 110.


Sultan-Masud Mirza Zill al-Sultan

     Born on 5 Jan. 1850, Sultan-Mas‘ud Mirza Zill al-Sultan

was the eldest surviving son of Nasir al-Din Shah and long-time governor of Isfahan.  He was passed over for the throne because his mother, ‘Iffat al-Saltana, was a temporary wife and not of noble blood, so the next son, Muzaffar al-Din Mirza, was designated heir-apparent.  His original title was Yamin al-Dawla, but in 1869 he received the title Zill al-Sultan, “shadow of the king.” 

     He became governor of Mazandaran at age 11 and of Fars at 13.  In 1874 he became governor of Isfahan.  He ruled sternly, suppressed disorders, and paid taxes promptly to the central government.  With these commendations, additional provinces were added to his government until by 1882 he governed about 40% of Iran, including such important areas as Yazd, Fars with its capital of Shiraz, and Kirmanshah.  In addition, he built up an efficient provincial army containing 21,000 men, 6,000 horse, and ten batteries of artillery—a force that by Iranian standards was large, well-armed, and well-trained.  He ruled regally in Isfahan, flattering English diplomats who supposed him to be enlightened and pro-British.

     This situation abruptly ended in 1888.  Nasir al-Din Shah, suspecting that Zill al-Sultan planned to contest the throne with his gentler brother on his father’s death, detained him while he was visiting Tehran and announced that Zill al-Sultan had “resigned” all his offices except the governorship of Isfahan.  His deputy-governors in the cities and provinces formerly under his rule were dismissed and the fine army disbanded.  Zill al-Sultan eventually returned to Isfahan, an embittered and much weakened man.

     After the assassination of Nasir al-Din Shah, having lost his own power and without the support he had once hoped for from the English, he yielded to his younger brother’s accession to the throne.  He remained governor of Isfahan for twenty years after his disgrace.  These years were dominated by a long struggle for control of Isfahan with the powerful and unscrupulous Aqa Najafi.  He was finally dismissed from his governorship after the Constitutional Revolution and exiled to Europe.  He was allowed to return during World War I and died not long after his return in Isfahan on 2 July 1918.

     Zill al-Sultan’s relations with the Baha’is were complex and ambiguous.  On his first arrival as governor in Isfahan, he was greeted with a persecution of Baha’is instigated by Shaykh Muhammd-Baqir.  He sought to the prevent the news from reaching Tehran.  In 1879 he consented to the arrest of the Nahri brothers, the “King’ and “Beloved of Martyrs.”  It seems likely that his interest in the matter was the innocent extortion scarcely distinguishable from tax collection and that he did not particularly want them killed.  Nonetheless, confronted on the one hand with the obstinate refusal of the two brothers to recant and on the other by a mob led by sixty clerics, he consented to their deaths.  In this he disobeyed orders from the Shah to send them to Tehran.  After their deaths, he took such a large share of their plundered wealth that the Imam-Jum‘a, cheated in the transaction, raised another riot in protest.

     In the various persecutions that took place in Isfahan and its vicinity through the rest of his governorship, Zill al-Sultan generally played a passive role, pleading his inability to confront the clergy, especially the formidable Aqa Najafi.  When possible he discouraged the pogroms but rarely took active measures to stop them.  Zill al-Sultan was not himself actively hostile to the Baha’is and in any case hated the clergy.  It is said that Zill al-Sultan did instigate the persecution of the Baha’is of Yazd in 1891 to divert attention from himself after he had been indirectly implicated in a plot against the Shah.

     On at least one occasion Zill al-Sultan attempted to enlist the Baha’is in his schemes to gain the throne for himself.  He sent a messenger to Bahaullah, Haji Muhammad-‘Ali Sayyah Mahallati.  Bahaullah rejected this overture politely but firmly and later remarked to his companions that had he sent Zill al-Sultan’s letter to Nasir al-Din Shah, it would surely have resulted in the prince’s death.  In the fall of 1911 Zill al-Sultan approached ‘Abd al-Baha in Paris, hoping for his help in securing his return to Iran and reacquiring certain properties of his that had come into the hands of Baha’is.  ‘Abd al-Baha said that Zill al-Sultan would return to Iran and that the property in question would be given to him without payment.  Discovering that one of ‘Abd al-Baha’s attendants was a son of one of the brothers he had put to death thirty years before, he muttered excuses.  ‘Abd al-Baha said that he knew the part Zill al-Sultan had played and what his motive had been.

     Zill al-Sultan married Hamdam al-Muluk, the daughter of Nasir al-Din Shah’s sister and Mirza Taqi Khan, the former prime minister.  His son Jalal al-Dawla was governor of Yazd and played a large part in the persecutions of the Baha’is there.

     Zill al-Sultan tried to portray himself to foreigners as a progressive and pro-British reformer.  The astute Curzon, however, saw him as driven by the single ambition to supplant his brother as heir apparent and believed that he had also made overtures to the Russians.  In fact, although he was a vigorous and in many ways capable ruler, there was much less to him than his English admirers saw.  His rule was marred by cruelties: persecutions of Baha’is, the treacherous killing of a Bakhtiyari leader, and persecutions of Jews and others, mostly instigated by the clergy but tolerated by the prince.  Foreigners were appalled by the damage he inflicted to some of the great monuments of Isfahan, though in this he cannot be said to have been better or worse than his contemporaries.

     His relations with the Baha’is were consistently duplicitous.  He was willing to present himself as sympathetic to the Baha’is and even to solicit their aid, but he abandoned them when it suited his political purposes.

Curzon 1:416–21 and passim.  Browne, Year 114–15.  Momen, Babi 268–90, 301–5, 376–85 passim, 524.  Balyuzi, Eminent 33–44, 79–80.  Balyuzi, Baha’u’llah 409–10, 431–34.  Balyuzi, ‘Abdu’l-Baha       161–62.  Blomfield, Chosen 186–87.  ***Makarim  1814–15.




Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini—properly Imam Ayatu’llah Ruhu’llah al-Musavi al-Kumayni, the leader of the Iranian revolution of 1979, was bitterly hostile to the Baha’is and sanctioned the persecutions that took place under the Islamic revolutionary government of Iran.



     Khomeini was born in about 1900 in the impoverished oasis town of Khumayn, south of Tehran.  His grandfather, a member of a Persian family living in Kashmir, had studied in Karbala and settled in Khumayn at the invitation of a local chief around 1840.  While Khomeini was still an infant, his father was killed in a dispute with a local landlord, leaving Khomeini to be raised by a somewhat more prosperous uncle.  His uncle and aunt wished him to become a traditional physician (hakim), but he showed talent for Islamic learning.  World War I having made travel to the Shi‘i centers in Iraq impractical, he chose to study in the nearby town of Arak, eventually becoming a favored student of Shaykh ‘Abd al-Karim Ha’iri Yazdi (1859–1937).

     Khomeini was fortunate in his choice of teacher, for Ha’iri Yazdi moved to Qum in 1922 and led the revival of that town as a center of Shi‘i learning, becoming its chief religious authority.  By the end of the 1930s Khomeini had begun teaching the slightly unorthodox disciplines of mysticism and philosophy.  In 1930 he married the daughter of a prominent cleric of Tehran, Batul Saqafi, whom he adored and by whom he had five children.  By 1937–38 he was prosperous enough to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca and spend several months in the shrine cities of Iraq.

     During these years Khomeini had been so angered by the secular and anti-clerical policies of Rida Shah Pahlavi that in 1944 he published a vitriolic anti-government pamphlet called Kashf al-Asrar, a work that foreshadowed his later ideas on Islamic government.  He was also influenced by the antisemitic propaganda of the Nazis, which left him with an abiding belief in a Jewish conspiracy against Islam.

     When Ayatu’llah Burujirdi (1875–1962) came to Qum at the beginning of 1945, Khomeini became his close advisor, carrying out religious and political missions on Bururjirdi’s behalf that helped secure the latter’s position as chief religious authority of the Shi‘i world.  Burujirdi firmly discouraged Khomeini’s involvement in anti-government politics and terrorism.

     During the 1950s Khomeini turned his attention to the problem of becoming a Grand Ayatu’llah—marja al-taqlid, a supreme authority on religious matters.  Therefore, he began writing books, this establishing his scholarly credentials.  His increasing personal wealth allowed him to gather a large circle of students.  By about 1958 his position as an Ayatu’llah of the second rank was secure, but his prospects were limited by the presence of a number of more senior Ayatu’llahs, some of whom would surely outlive him and thus block his path to promotion.  Moreover, his interests lay in philosophy, mysticism, and even poetry—not the jurisprudence that was the chief interest of his class.  Even three decades later an air of doubt still attached to his claim to be a Grand Ayatu’llah.

     In 1962 and 1963 the government introduced a number of reforms: large-scale land reforms, women’s sufferage, and the elimination of religious tests for local offices.  The first struck at the independence of the religious institutions, which were dependent on their large endowments of rental farmland, while the latter two were seen by the clergy as anti-Islamic.  Large demonstrations took place throughout the country.  Khomeini took a leading role in agitating against the measures, speaking against the Shah in bold and abusive language.  The protests reached their height in 1963 at ‘Ashura, the anniversary of the martyrdom of Husayn, which fell that year at the beginning of June.  By the time troops had restored order, hundreds were dead.  Khomeini, along with other clerical leaders of the protests, was arrested and brought to Tehran where he was held for ten months before being released in April 1964.  His preaching remained defiant.  That November he was arrested again for his opposition to a bill removing American military personnel from the jurisdiction of the Iranian courts.  He was exiled to Turkey.  The following year he settled in Najaf, the chief Shi‘i scholarly center of Iraq, where he lived until 1978.


Thought and writings

     Khomeini’s intellectual importance rests on his theory of Islamic government, a subject on which he disagreed with the majority of modern Shi‘i clerics.  Traditionally, Shi‘is accepted the separation of church and state in the absence of the Hidden Imam.  Khomeini argued that many of the fundamental laws of Islam presumed the existence of an Islamic government.  Also, people are weak and, for the most part, will fall into sin without the influence of a government to enforce religious law.  In our time Islamic states had fallen into the hands of those who served the purposes of non-Muslim imperialists.  Khomeini painted a stark picture of the division of society into a tiny minority of rich and corrupt oppressors exploiting the mass of oppressed Muslims.  The solution was to establish true Islamic governments.  The proper leaders for such governments were the Islamic clergy because of their knowledge of divine law and their commitment to justice.  This last is the famous doctrine of the “guardianship of the jurisconsult” (vilayat-i faqih).  Khomeini presented this message in books, pamphlets, and fiery sermons smuggled into Iran on casettes.

     Though Khomeini’s scholarly output was much less than that of other Grand Ayatu’llahs, he did write a number of books.  These were:

     Tahrir al-Wasila and Tawdih al-Masail, manuals on ritual obligations of the sort conventionally written by Grand Ayatu’llahs.

     Kitab al-Bay, a treatise on the law of contracts that provided a vehicle for his denial of the legitimacy of the secular state.

     Islamic Government (Hukumat-i Islami), a compilation of his lectures on government, his most influential work.

     Misbah al-Hidayat, on mystical philosophy.

     To this must be added his Last Will and Testament, written in 1983 and constituting his political testament.

     There are also a number of collections of speeches, letters, and the like.


Khomeini and the Iranian Revolution

      While in Najaf Khomeini developed his theory of Islamic government and built up a loose revolutionary network within Iran.  Eventually his uncompromising opposition to the Shah’s regime won him support from other anti-government groups, who hoped to use him for their own purposes.  Early in 1978 riots broke out in major Iranian cities, resulting in many deaths.  Riots continued through the summer and fall, encouraged by Khomeini’s network of supporters.  Expelled from Iraq in October, Khomeini settled in Paris, by now the recognized leader of the revolution.  After the Shah’s departure from Iran, Khomeini returned to Iran in triumph on 31 January and within days was the unquestioned ruler of the country though he himself held no government post.

     Khomeini moved quickly to consolidate his Islamic regime by executing many leaders of the old government.  By consistently supporting the most radical elements of the revolution, he was able to maintain his own position and eliminate other elements of the revolutionary coalition, such as Marxists, secular nationalists, and even rival Ayatu’llahs.  Though various political groups coalesced out of the clerical coalition that had brought him to power, Khomeini retained supreme control, able to frustrate policies that he objected to.  Under his authority Iran pursued a xenophobic foreign policy, resulting in disasters such as American hostage crisis, the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, and the American economic embargo.  His major foreign policy success was that under him and his successors, Iran for the first time in several centuries had a government that was not under the influence of one or more powerful Western states.  Since Khomeini’s program was primarily religious and moral, devoted to the moral and spiritual reform of Islamic society, he had few concrete economic and political programs, apart from a generalized hostility towards the West. 

     In the last years of his life, he was rumored to be ill.  In any case, he played little role in day-to-day affairs, living in seculsion in a heavily fortified village near Tehran.  Nonetheless, he retained the capacity to intervene in affairs if he chose, as his condemnation of the British author Salman Rushdie in 1989 proved.  He died of complications following surgery on 4 June 1989 in Tehran.


Khomeini and the Baha’is

     Khomeini shared the distaste of many (though not all) Shi‘i clerics for Baha’is.  His first contact with Baha’is was evidently in Simnan in 1930, where he tried to organize an anti-Baha’i meeting.  Later his hatred for Baha’is, Jews, and the Pahlavi regime coalesced, convincing him that the three groups were in league to destroy Islam.  Thus Khomeini supported the anti-Baha’i pogroms of the 1950s and in 1963 accused the government of using local government reforms as a device to favor the Baha’is.

     After his return to Iran in 1979 Khomeini refused to include Baha’is among the religious minorities protected by the Islamic regime.  There can be little doubt that the persecutions of the Baha’is in Iran under the Islamic regime were conducted with the consent of Khomeini, though they were generally initiated by particular groups within the revolutionary coalition and carried out by lower-level officials.

Almost every book published about the Iranian Revolution deals with Khomeini at length.  An imperfect and generally hostile biography is Amir Taheri, The Spirit of Allah (Bethesda: Adler & Adler, 1986).  A study of the development of his intellectual views is found in Hamid Dabashi, Theology of Discontent (New York: NYU Press, 1993), ch. 8 and passim.  Khomeini’s works have been zealously published in Iran since the revolution though some post hoc editing has taken place.  A representative sample by a good scholar is Islam and Revolution: Writings and Declarations of Imam Khomeini, trans. Hamid Algar (Berkeley: Mizan Press, 1981).  There are many translations of varying quality produced by or on behalf of the Islamic Republic of Iran.



Miscellaneous historical and doctrinal topics


Seven Proofs

     The Persian. Dalail-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 Baha’i 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 Baha’is 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.

An edition has been published by the Azalis in Iran; Abu al-Fadl Bayda’i, ed., Dalail-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.


Lawh-i Aqdas

     The “Most Holy Tablet” is an Arabic letter addressed to a Baha’i, 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 Baha’i, 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 Baha’i, 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.


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.

              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, “Baha’u’llah’s Message to the Christians” (n.p.: Baha’i 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, Baha’u’llah 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 Baha’i thought, and almost nothing has been done to integrate the ideas of the Baha’i writings with modern philosophy.  Therefore, this article will mainly discuss philosophy as part of the historical background of Baha’i thought and the references to philosophy in the Baha’i writings.


Islamic philosophy as background to Bahai 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 (qawaid-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 Baha’i 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 Baha’i teachings or whether it is a rhetorical device sometimes useful for conveying them is a matter of current Baha’i 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 Baha’is 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 Baha’i 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 Bahais

     Among the numerous clerics who became Baha’is 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 Baha’is 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 Baha’i 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 Baha’i 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 Baha’i writings, Amr va-Khalq, shows his knowledge of philosophical issues.

     Three other recent Baha’i authors have written specifically on philosophy.  ‘Azizu’llah Sulaymani, better known for his Baha’i biographical dictionary, prepared a textbook of traditional Islamic philosophy for the use of Baha’i students.  This work, Rashahat-i Hikmat, is intended to familiarize the students with traditional philosophy for use in understanding Baha’i 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 Baha’i 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 Baha’i thought with the rationalist philosophies of Descartes and Spinoza.

     Only recently have Western Baha’is 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, mutaallih) 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. (Baha’i 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, Baha’i 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 Baha’i writings in the West further questions arose.  Western Baha’is 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 Baha’is 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 (Baha’i 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 Baha’i 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 Baha’i 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 (Baha’i World Faith 336–48).  Baha’i writers on philosophy have include ‘A. M. Davudi, Insan dar Ayin-i Bahai 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 Bahai Teachings; Udo Schaefer, The Imperishable Dominion; M. Momen, “Relativism: a Basis for Baha’i Metaphysics,” in SBBR 5:185–217; Robert Parry, “Philosophical Theology in Baha’i Scholarship,” BSB Oct. 1992, 6/4–7/2: 66–91.  Ruhi Afnan,  the Revelation of Bahaullah and the Bab: Book 1: Descartes Theory of Knowledge (New York: Philosophical Library, 1970); idem, Bahaullah 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 Baha’i writings, see Research Department, Baha’i 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 Baha’i 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 Baha’i 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 Baha’i 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 Baha’i piety ever since. 

     In Baha’i 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 Baha’i 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 Baha’i teacher might report being guided by a dream to a place or an individual.  Sometimes, Baha’i teachers report being told that a dream, either of the teacher himself , of ‘Abd al-Baha, or of some other recognizable Baha’i image, had presaged their coming.  Though such reports have no canonical authority and perhaps properly belong to the realm of Baha’i folklore, they do play a role in modern Baha’i 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 Baha’i Belief, which I have not used.)


R.M.S. Titanic

     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.


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