The Cultural and Religious Precursors of Baha’ism
By Shua Ullah Behai
Shua Ullah Behai (1878 - July 3,1950), also known in the Baha’i tradition as Mirza Shua'u’llah, was the son of Mohammed Ali, son of Baha’u'llah. He was Baha'u’llah’s eldest grandson. Mr. Behai was fluent in English and is the only known descendant of the Baha’i prophet to have become an American citizen.
This chapter contains most of the first two chapters of his book manuscript about the Baha’i faith. I have removed some Persian poetry and an excerpt from the writings of Professor Edward G. Browne about his meetings with the Bab’s successor Subh-i-Azal, and condensed Prof. Browne’s lengthy description of the execution of Babi martyrs, for the sake of brevity. Some of the section headings have been added.
The Great Culture of Iran (Persia), the Birthplace of the Baha’I Faith The area of Iran is 1,648,000 square kilometers. It is situated between the following countries: to the north, the Caucasus, the Caspian Sea, and Russian Turkestan; to the east, Afghanistan and British Baluchistan; to the south, the Oman Sea and the Persian Gulf; to the west, Iraq and Turkey. Its population according to the last census is about18,000,ooo.
On account of the great mountains and wide plains, the climate of Iran is of two distinct types, that of the temperate regions and the tropical zones. Few countries of such a size enjoy such a diversity of climate. According to history, Iran was a country of ancient civilization, great empire, and the center of the art of literature, producing such a historianpoet as Ferdowsi, who wrote the Shahnameh (Book of Kings), which contains over fifty thousand verses of poetry and was completed by him in the 11th century A.D. His work has been acclaimed by modern judges of literature as one of the greatest, and his millenary was celebrated all over the world in 1934. The following is from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (reproduced from The Oriental Caravan):
A weary traveller sat to grieve By Gureng’s gate, at early eve, Where fragrant gardens, filled with bloom, Cast forth their breath of soft perfume, And wandering o’er his brow and free, Relieved him for a moment’s space. But sorrow weighed upon his breast, And dimmed the lustre of his eye; He had no home—he sought but rest, And laid him down to sleep—or die. ICing Gureng’s lovely daughter lies Beside a fountain gently playing; She marks not though the waves be bright, Nor in the roses takes delight; And though her maids new games devise, Invent fresh stories to surprise, She heeds not what each fair is saying;... But hark! soft whispers, questions gay, Amongst the female train prevail; A young slave, beautiful as day, Blushes while she tells her tale.... The princess heard: “Go hence,” she cried, “And be the stranger’s wants supplied: Let him beneath our shades repose, And find a refuge for his woes.” ... Meanwhile the princess mused alone, And thus she sighed, in mournful tone:— ... “That prince whose power was far above All those who vainly seek my love;... His Kingdom gone, his fortune crost, And he, perhaps, for ever lost!” She ceased, when lo! The laughing train Came dancing back, with song and jest, And leading, in a flowery chain, The stranger youth their welcome guest.
’Twas thus they met—they met and gazed, Struck by the self-same power—amazed; Confused, admiring, pleased, distressed, As passion rose in either breast. The princess spoke—soft as a bird In spring to some dear partner sighing; And the fair stranger’s words were heard, Sweet as the bulbul’s notes replying. Her long hair, streaming to the ground With odours fills the air around; She moves to music and to song, As the wild partridge steps along.
She leads him to her jasmine bower,Midst fountains, birds, and blossoms sweet; And her attendant maidens shower The sparkling wave upon his feet;... My tale is told. Ye lovers, say, Can ye not guess the blissful close? How Jamshid20 won a bride that day, And found a balm for all his woes.
Another was the philosopher-poet Saadi, 13th century A.D., who wrote The Rose Garden (Gulistan) and The Orchard (Boston). The following is the translation of a few verses from Gulistan: In a public bath, one winter day, A beloved presented me with a fragrant clay. Amazingly said I! Art thou Musk or Amber? To thine exquisite fragrance I slumber. I was a common clay, humbly said he, But I befriended the rose of Parsee. Sweet friendship of by-gone day, Brought me the fragrance of to-day.Take thou that fragrance from me away, I am nothing but the same common clay.
The following is taken from Costello’s Rose Garden of Persia-} Contentment (from the Boston) Smile not, nor think the legend vain, That in old times a worthless stone Such power in holy hands could gain, That straight a silver heap it shone. Thy alchemist Contentment be, Equal is stone or ore to thee.
The infant’s pure unruffled breast, No avarice nor pride molest: He fills his little hands with earth, Nor knows that silver has more worth. The sultan sits in pomp and state, And sees the dervish at his gate; But yet of wealth the sage has more Than the great king, with all his store. Rich is a beggar, worn and spent, To whom a silver coin is thrown; But Feridoun was not content, Though Ajum’s kingdom was his own.
Hafez was another well-known Iranian poet, of the 14th century A.D. The following verses by Hafez are translated by G.L. Bell:
The nightingale with drops of his heart’s blood Had nourished the red rose, then came a wind, And catching at the boughs in envious mood, A hundred thorns about his heart entwined. Like to the parrot crunching sugar, good Seemed the world to me who could not stay The wind of Death that swept my hopes away. Light of mine eyes and harvest of my heart, And mine at least in changeless memory! Ah, when he found it easy to depart, He left the harder pilgrimage to me! Oh Camel-driver, though the cordage start, For God’s sake help me lift my fallen load, And Pity be my comrade of the road! My face is seamed with dust, mine eyes are wet. Of dust and tears the turquoise firmament Kneadeth the bricks for joy’s abode; and yet... Alas, and weeping yet I make lament! Because the moon her jealous glances set Upon the bow-bent eyebrows of my moon, He sought a lodging in the grave—too soon! I had not castled, and the time is gone. What shall I play? Upon the chequered floor Of Night and Day, Death won the game—forlorn And careless now, Hafiz can lose no more.
Although Omar Khayyam’s name springs readily to mind with the mention of Iranian poetry, in his native land his fame is surpassed by that of Ferdowsi, Saadi and Hafez. The superb translation by FitzGerald made him popular in the Western world as a poet. Iran enjoyed great progress for many centuries, according to the Book of Kings (Shahnameh) which is the only [early] Iranian history in existence. Also the ancient examples of art and excavated discoveries prove this progress. Times passed as such, until the Arabs conquered the Persian empire and forced them to accept Islam by the sword.
After a long period of oppression, the Iranians became students of the Arabic language, devout followers of the Prophet [Muhammad] and strong believers in his book, the Qur’an. Eventually they surpassed the Arabs in their language. The first Arabic dictionary was compiled by an Iranian, named Abu Tahir Majdeddin Fairuzabadi, and it is still in existence today, bearing his name.
The following well-known personages are a few of the thousands of Iranians that served in the Islamic kingdom:
® The great Imam Abu Hanifa (founder of the Hanafi sect of Islam).
® Ibn Muqla (calligrapher of the Naskh alphabet, and powerful politician who served as Grand Vizier under three Abbasid caliphs).
® Abu Ishaq Estakhri (composer of the first book on geography in Arabic).« Abu Ali Ibn Sina29 (philosopher, physician, and founder of the science of medicine).
® Zamakhshari (logician and grammarian).
Abu Baler [Muhammad ibn Zalcariya] Razi (physician and mathematician).
® Fakhruddin Razi (philosopher).
® Nasir al-Din Tusi (astronomer and founder of Maragheh observatory near
® Imam Muhammad Al-Ghazali (theologian, philosopher, and mystic).
Shi'ism, Theocracy, and the Descent of Persia into Darkness As the years went by, the Iranians progressed greatly both socially and politically. Then a new idea appeared in their mind, and a decision was reached to control the government through the power of religion. They hoped to regain their freedom through that channel and to rebuild their empire. They tried on several occasions to fulfill their desire, especially during the Abbasid caliphate, but at every attempt they failed. While the Safavid rulers controlled the throne of Iran during the 16th century, realizing their numerous unsuccessful attempts to overcome the Arabian kingdom, they encouraged the mullahs (leaders of theology) to renew the Shi'ite doctrine (which was originated after the reign of Ali, the fourth caliph after Muhammad) against the other Islamic denominations—thus building a strong wall between them, owing that no barrier could be stronger than religious superstition. By this means, they sowed the seeds of hatred in the hearts of the masses.
For the enlightenment of the reader I hereby explain some of the Shi'ite doctrine. The Shi'ites believe that the true spiritual leaders after the Prophet were his descendants, and they are called Imams. The Imam is the divinely ordained successor of the Prophet, one endowed with all perfections and spiritual gifts, one whom all the faithful must obey, whose decision is absolute and final, whose wisdom is superhuman, and whose words are authoritative. The Imams, the [chosen] descendants of the Prophet, were twelve in number; therefore it is termed “Creed of the Twelve.”
These twelve are as follows:
1. Ali, son-in-law of Muhammad.
2. Hasan, son of Ali and Fatimah [the daughter of Muhammad].
3. Hussein, [younger] son of Ali and Fatimah.
4. Ali, son of Hussein and Shahrbanu (daughter of Yazdegerd III, the last Sasanian king), generally called Zayn al-Abedin.
5. Muhammad Baqir, son of Zayn al-Abedin.
6. Ja'far Sadiq, son of Muhammad Baqir.
7. Musa Kazim, son of Ja'far Sadiq.
8. Ali Reza, son of Musa Kazim.
9. Muhammad [al-Jawad] Taqi, son of Ali Reza.
10. Ali [al-Hadi] Naqi, son of Muhammad Taqi.
11. Hasan Askari, son of Ali Naqi.
12. Muhammad, son of Hasan Askari and Narjis Khatun, called “Imam Mahdi.”
Imam Mahdi was born in Surra Man Ra'a, Iraq, and succeeded his father in the year 260 A.H. [874 A.D.] The Shi'ites hold that he did not die, but disappeared in an underground passage in Surra Man Ra'a; that he still lives surrounded by a chosen band of his followers in one of the mystical cities called Jabulqa and Jabulsa and that when the fullness of time is come, when the earth is filled with injustice, and the faithful are plunged in despair, he will come forth to overthrow the infidels, establish universal peace and justice and inaugurate a millennium of blessedness. During the whole period of his Imamate, i.e. 260 A.H. until the present day, the Imam Mahdi has been invisible and inaccessible to the mass of his followers.
The renewal of the Shi'ite doctrine shattered the peaceful minds of Iranians, drowned them in the ocean of superstition and for two hundred years kept them in darkness. Students of history are aware of the unbearable conditions which existed in Iran from the 17th to the 19th centuries, especially during the Qajar rule. [Unnumbered people endured] extreme agonies for the freedom of their thoughts, and thousands of noble souls sacrificed their lives to free their fellow beings from the clutches of religious leaders and their superstitions.