A New Respect for Veils

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I want to extend my heartfelt thanks to Gretel Murchie Porter (deceased), her brother Barnaby, and Gretel’s son Samuel Goldsmith for their time, patience, and trouble. Thanks to Sam in particular for granting me permission to copy his grandfather’s manuscript “The Veil of Glory,” in order that I might be able to read it. Thanks, finally, to the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center for preserving Guy Murchie’s materials and making them available.

I’m a Guy Murchie fan. I respect his popular works on science and though I am no longer a Bahá’í I consider his magnum opus, “The Seven Mysteries of Life,” the best presentation of the Bahá’í Faith ever made for a modern audience. It follows naturally that when I discovered that Murchie had been working on a history of the Bahá’í Faith in his late years (ca. 1980 to 1988) I wanted to see if some hidden gem had been waiting to be discovered; a gem, if nothing else, for Bahá’í readers. Yes, I think I can suspend my disbelief long enough to dig up a gem that is only of value to someone else, but this is easy when the memory of an author whom I admire is involved.

After obtaining 430 photocopied pages of edited and redacted text for a fee of $250, I set off immediately to read the preface, introduction, and a bit of the body before skipping on to the concluding chapters. I am not ashamed to say that I was thrilled.

Unfortunately, this mystery drama does not end as I had hoped. I don’t want to say much more. The tone of the beginning and end is evangelical and even arrogant. The embellishments that Murchie adds to the narrative are difficult to believe; often logically and geographically unsustainable. There are cases where he creates geography from whole cloth for the sake of his imaginative fillers, and the servitude of his fictional geography to his fictional vignettes is transparent. All this, and not a single footnote.

The Universal House of Justice, I think, was being charitable in their assessment that this book would “muddy the waters of Bahá’í history,” as I think Houghton Mifflin was being equally charitable in saying that the book was “too much like the Gospel.” (See Murchie, Guy. The Soul School: Confessions of a Passenger on Planet Earth. Fithian Press. Santa Barbara, California. 1995. Page 609–10.)

I can only say in Guy Murchie’s defense, hoping to avoid ageism, that such a project was a monumental task for a man of his advanced years. He’d already been in his seventies when he published “Seven Mysteries.” He was 75 when “Seven Mysteries” was listed as a finalist for the American Book Award. Perhaps we should leave it at that.

Guy on the Horizon

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Guy Murchie, Jr. had big shoes to fill, and a big name to live up to. He lived as though he was keenly aware of his father’s figurative shoe size.

While a student at Harvard, Guy was a member of the school’s prestigious rowing team. He graduated from Harvard in 1929, at age 22. He left before commencement ceremonies for a trip featuring Alaska, Hawaii, East Asia, and Russia that lasted about a year. His plan was to pay his way by working as he went, sailing “before the mast” as did Ishmael in Moby-Dick, though he paid his way as a conventional traveler much of the way. He kept a trip journal that would become the book, Men on the Horizon, published in 1932. The book was something of a success, making the New York Times “Best Sellers” list for nonfiction.[1]

The Stock Market Crash of October 1929 would strike while Murchie was just getting work in the engine room of a liner from Honolulu to Kobe, Japan. Though he discussed economics at length throughout the book and throughout the Soviet Union, he seemed to do so as an open-minded but proud and optimistic American, utterly oblivious to the mounting economic catastrophe at home. But though he may have been a patriot, he delivered a pointed message of international brotherhood.

At the beginning of the book, Murchie spells out his mission:[2]

About the rest of [the world] I know only that it is made up of vast masses of men grouped in races and classes, unknown to each other, uniformed about each other, doubting and disliking each other — and yet, all of them made in the same image and of the same material, and all human. … I must find out for myself whether it is not ignorance, and ignorance alone, that prevents friendship and understanding between these masses of human beings.

Summing up his journey at the end of the book, Murchie reflects:[3]

Though eyes be slant, they crinkle with fun, and change when they look at children; they cloud with pain, and shift with fear, just as do eyes set straight. The sweat that streams out of a brown skin is salt like mine.

And I know that, in the shared orange held out to my hunger by a dirty little hand on a Chinese way-train, is the world’s hope.

It seems that Murchie considered himself a world citizen years before he first heard of the Bahá’í Faith.

The account includes some interesting if not always prescient observations. Japan is described as a very orderly, lawful, and beautiful place, though he is amused by his inability to get decent directions due to the unfailing courtesy of the Japanese. He did mention that the Japanese were generally underfed, perhaps due to population growth. Murchie’s pleasant depiction of Japan at the time may have been realistic, for democratic reforms were more the order of the day than the nationalistic fervor to come.

As for China, Murchie observed the famished and impoverished state of the Chinese people and dined with Nationalist leaders, watching them engorge themselves, one of them boasting of being on friendly and respectful terms with the Communist General “Feng,” who at the time was conquering more and more of Hunan Province.[4] Murchie assessed the state of China to be pathetically impoverished, doomed by its patriarchy, ancestor worship, and “face-saving;” harassed by rebels and bandits, but generally stable:

Once in a long while the soldiers do a bit of ravaging here and there, but everybody is used to bandits, who are always lurking in the open country, and the ravaging is hardly noticed. … All in all, China is not nearly so unstable politically as it seems …[5]

It should be borne in mind that these were the observations of 22 year-old New England blue-blood.

Murchie voiced respect for Stalin as a shrewd political strategist, and he viewed Soviet Communism with nuance. He saw it as a religion with similar fundamentals to Christianity, complete with an ethic of brotherhood, charity, and with missionaries of its own. He thought the Golden Rule to be the fundamental ethic of Communism. Still, he was a proud American of the Roaring Twenties. He did not care for Communism at all, though he did exhibit a somewhat open mind toward it.

Though the communists understand by the word ‘religion’ a superstitious worship of a god who is represented by temple bells, ikons, candles, and old priests in fancy robes — all of which they denounce — they do recognize the larger meaning of religion — a superhuman, guiding, vital force. This force, they call ‘naouka,’ which means ‘science’ or ‘nature.’ They believe that naouka[6] is the great force behind communism, which makes communism not only possible but inevitable.[7]

In March of the year Murchie published his travelogue he married Eleanor Forrester Parker, a 51 year-old friend of his whom he affectionately called Worgzie and Piggie. Murchie was 25 at the time.

© 2016 Dan Jensen


[1] New York Times, 16 May 1932

[2] Murchie, Guy. Men on the Horizon. Page 2

[3] Murchie, Guy. Men on the Horizon. Page 308

[4] Peng Dehuai, 1898–1974. Defense Minister of China, 1954–59. Purged by Mao for his criticism of the Great Leap Forward, as well as for Peng’s Soviet sympathies.

[5] Murchie, Guy. Men on the Horizon. Page 165

[6] Commonly spelled “nauka.”

[7] Murchie, Guy. Men on the Horizon. Page 291

Misters Roosevelt, Churchill, and Murchie

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The American Empire, it might well be said, was born on the day Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders defeated the Spanish in Cuba. Roosevelt was surely the first American Emperor — though a democratic emperor, and his Cuban adventure was the heroic gesture that crowned him. Largely ignoring the Constitution, Teddy expanded the powers of the Presidency so as to rein in monopolies. He made the United States a world power, and the United States and the world have not been the same since.

One of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders was Teddy’s Harvard classmate, Guy Murchie. Roosevelt wrote of Murchie:[1][2]

The Harvard contingent was practically raised by Guy Murchie, of Maine. He saw all the fighting and did his duty with the utmost gallantry, …

One biographical note states:[3]

Guy Murchie (1872–1958), after graduating from Harvard College and the Harvard Law School, organized the Harvard contingent of Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders for the Spanish-American War. He later became a United States marshal for Massachusetts and an Attorney in Boston.

Before Teddy Roosevelt became president, Guy Murchie had been a close friend and attorney of Winston Churchill. Murchie appeared to have also been conspiring with Churchill to make Roosevelt the next president of the United States. Murchie wrote the following in a letter to Churchill: [4]

Roosevelt will be back in a few days now probably and later we can have crystallized our political boom scheme. General Wood thinks it is a fine one and so does another confidential of mine. It remains to be discovered what the man himself will say! …

This was written shortly before President McKinley was assassinated.

On the morning of the assassination, Friday, September 6, 1901, Vice President Roosevelt and some “distinguished guests” took a Senator’s yacht to Isle La Motte, Vermont for “the annual dinner of the Fish and Game League.” The first three names on the guest list were Mr. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Guy Murchie.[5]

McKinley died on September 14. Soon afterward, Murchie and Mr. and Mrs. Churchill were invited to the White House to dine with Roosevelt. Robert W. Schneider reports:[6]

On November 10, the Churchills and Murchie were present at a White House dinner for members of the Cabinet.

This Guy Murchie was more than just a Rough Rider. It seems he was something of a power broker. When Murchie had a son, he named the boy after himself: Guy Murchie, Jr. President Roosevelt and wife were present at the christening, not merely as honored guests—but as godparents.[7][8]

© 2016 Dan Jensen


[1] February 23, 1907. Duluth Evening Herald, Sunday Morning, February 24, 1907, page 1, column 7.

[2] Roosevelt, Theodore. The Works of Theodore Roosevelt: The Rough Riders, page 14.

[3] Letters of Louis D. Brandeis: Volume II, 1907–1912: People’s Attorney, Page 27.

[4] Schneider, Robert W. Novelist to a Generation: the Life and Thought of Winston Churchill, page 59.

[5] The Vermonter: The State Magazine, Volume VII, No. 4. (November 1901), page 369–70.

[6] Schneider, Robert W. Novelist to a Generation: the Life and Thought of Winston Churchill, page 59.

[7] February 23, 1907. Duluth Evening Herald, Sunday Morning, February 24, 1907, page 1, column 7.

[8] No Mollycoddlers, Says Roosevelt. New York Times, February 24, 1907.

Dr. Troutman’s Apostate Taxonomy

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I haven’t done much with this blog lately. Too much is going on in life and the Bahá’ís have been very quiet of late. I need to find something to post about! Oh here: this will do …

It was recently brought to my attention that I had been removed from Wikipedia’s list of Ex-Bahá’ís, which was quite a surprise given that I didn’t know I’d ever been on any such list. It’s hard to enjoy fame when nobody tells you you’re famous.

It happened that when yours truly was stricken from the honor roll, the list was broken up into two much shorter lists … and one really long list:

  • Former Bahá’ís: Juan Cole and Abd al-Hosayn Ayati
  • Apostates: K. Paul Johnson, Denis MacEoin, and Ehsan Yarshater
  • Covenant-breakers: (too many to mention here)


The page says nothing about restricting the list to noteworthy former Bahá’ís, therefore it follows that there is only one living “former Bahá’í,” and his name is Juan Cole.

The other three living specimens are “apostates.” This term was introduced to the list by one Chris Troutman, evidently an authority on out-group taxonomy. I know nothing about this authority figure, except that he seems to spend a lot of time editing Wiki pages.

I’m not sure how the three honorable gentlemen earned the eminent Dr. Troutman’s “apostate” classification. Perhaps it is that they have lives and don’t seem to care much about discussing the Bahá’í Faith, whereas Cole and Ayati went to great lengths to criticize the Bahá’í Faith and its Authoritative Odor. So it must mean that a “former Bahá’í” is a strident antagonist and an “apostate” is a specimen with better ways to spend his time?

One interesting fact: all “Covenant-breakers” are dead. I guess Covenant breaking isn’t an issue anymore, but of course “Covenant-breakers” do come in handy as a negative association for former Bahá’ís on lists like this, though as a general rule “Covenant-breakers” don’t consider themselves “former Bahá’ís.” It must be comforting to be a modest, harmless Ex-Bahá’í and share a page with the good folks that Bahá’ís regard as the darkest enemies of God’s Cause.

Here’s a link to the latest edit of the “Former Bahá’ís” Wiki page.

Here’s a link to Chris Troutman’s May 30, 2016 edit.

© 2016 Dan Jensen

Bahá’í Calendar Redux

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The Bahá’í Calendar, arguably the least lunar calendar there is, has recently been given a lunar calculation of its own. Because the founders of the Bábí and Bahá’í religions were reported to have been born a day apart on the Islamic calendar (though two years apart), the Bahá’í leaders in Israel figured it would be nice to make this happen on their calendar. To do this, they marked the 8th new moon after No-Rúz in Tehran as the one most likely to be close to the time of year when the two prophets were born, and then had one prophet’s birth commemorated on the first day after that new moon and the other prophet’s birth commemorated on the day after that.

The commemorations will no longer occur on the actual dates of birth on the solar cycle (October 20 and November 12) or even the Islamic calendar, but rather, they will take place on different dates from year to year, as is done with Easter and Good Friday.

Calendars are an important tool for scheduling our activities. A farmer might use a solar calendar to plan a harvest. A Bedouin might use a lunar calendar to plan a journey across the desert. Many calendars are a hybrid between solar and lunar so that they can be used in accord with seasonal and lunar cycles. The Gregorian calendar, for instance, is precisely calculated to remain synchronized with the seasons. It is not so precise with respect to lunar cycles, each of its months being about a day too long to keep pace with the phases of the moon. Still, a Gregorian month can be used to loosely approximate a lunar month.

Calendars can also be used to lend meaning to a day or a time of year. Nations and religions use calendars to assert their values and allegiances. They do so by marking certain dates as sacred (in a religious or secular sense).

The Bábí religion of 19th Century Iran was the first that I know of to take the “moon” out of month, to redefine it such that it has absolutely no correspondence to lunar cycles. The Bábí month had 19 days in it, presumably because 19 is the square root of 361 (which is nearly 365.24). If one makes a month 19 days long, one can have 19 months in a year. You’ll have to add 4 or 5 days on at the end to complete the year, but otherwise you have a calendar that is a kind of perfect square (an imperfect kind). It has little to say about natural cycles, because the cycles are not perfect squares, but if one likes mathematical perfection it has that going for it.

The Bábí calendar, like the ancient Iranian calendar, was a solar calendar with its new year, “No-Rúz” in Farsi, on the Vernal Equinox (about March 20). This changed a bit when the Bábí religion metamorphosed into the Bahá’í Faith. The founder of the latter religion, Bahá’u’lláh, used his knowledge of astrology to alter the Bábí calendar so that the Bahá’í new year would occur when the sun enters the constellation Aries, which might be regarded as a war god or a sheep.

Because the sun enters Aries on about April 18, the Bahá’í calendar should have its new year on that date, but this rule has been ignored. The Bahá’í calendar is said, rather, to begin on the Vernal Equinox, but this is not strictly the case. It is, rather, based upon the Gregorian calendar, its new year being marked on March 20th every year, regardless of whether the equinox falls on that date or not.

A calendar that begins when the sun enters a constellation is bound to drift against the seasons, so it is more astrological—or Zodiacal—than it is solar. However, so long as the Bahá’í calendar is based upon the Gregorian calendar, it will remain a solar calendar (by association).

© 2014 Dan Jensen

America’s Last Chance

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The year was 1966. The times they were a-changin’. In the Bahá’í universe, the pieces were falling into place. The first Universal House of Justice had been elected, and the world seemed to be ready for new answers and new leaders. It was the time of Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali. Malcolm X had recently been assassinated. Black Americans were asserting their status and rights as full citizens. The time was right to introduce Black America to Bahá’u’lláh’s message of racial equality and unity.

I was just a year old. My family moved from south Los Angeles to Saint Helena Island, just off the coast of South Carolina. We lived in the town of Frogmore, the location of legendary Penn Center. Saint Helena Island, midway between Charleston and Savannah, had once been a sanctuary for free blacks (Union territory during the Civil War), and the location of a school for the same. It remains an active cultural heritage center to this day. In the 1960s, Penn Center was a conference center for some of the leaders of Black America. My parents even joined in a meeting attended by Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson, and—I daresay—even Joan Baez.

The lower coast of South Carolina was the focus of much Bahá’í campaigning in the late 1960s. My family played a part in those campaigns. This deeply southern portion of the state is generally poor and black, two qualifications that made the area a prime target of proselytizing. But presently, 45 years later, there is little sign of that burst of campaigning. According to the Association of Religion Data Archives, the population of Bahá’ís south of Lake Marion is quite low. Only in Colleton County, just northeast of Beaufort and Frogmore, do Bahá’ís constitute more than 0.7% of the population. On average, the poor, black counties that stretch from the Savannah River to Lake Marion are 0.6% Bahá’í.

The penetration of the Bahá’í Faith is significantly greater in the somewhat less black counties north of the Santee River. From the Santee north to Dillon and Darlington Counties, Bahá’ís constitute 2.4% of the population, four times the density south of Lake Marion. This region has a greater concentration of Bahá’ís than anywhere in the United States. This is probably because the Bahá’ís have an “institute” (LGBI) and a radio station (WLGI) at Hemmingway, in the heart of the area, where Williamsburg, Florence, Marion, and Georgetown Counties meet—just inland from the resort complex along Myrtle Beach. South Carolina, as a whole, has a much lower density of Bahá’ís.

The only area in the United States that comes close to the Myrtle Beach area is the Pine Ridge–Rosebud area of South Dakota, where Bahá’ís began a campaign to convert impoverished reservation Indians in the 1980s. The penetration of the Bahá’í Faith there is just under 2%. The Standing Rock Reservation on the border of the Dakotas has a Bahá’í density of just over 1%.

The highest density of Bahá’ís in the United States outside of South Carolina and South Dakota can be found in the vicinity of Bosch Bahá’í Institute, on the central coast of California. Over 2,100 Bahá’ís live between Bosch, Salinas, and Monterey (a density of about 0.33%). This is not very impressive, but it’s higher than the same stat for southern South Carolina (0.29%), where once the Bahá’ís made great strides toward their dream of “entry by troops.” Unfortunately for that dream, that great moment of sea change that brought the movers and shakers to Frogmore is long gone, and little sign of the Bahá’í religion remains south of the Santee. A Bahá’í community can be found in listings for the city of Charleston, but elsewhere in the region, you’ll need a Bahá’í membership listing to find a Bahá’í. There are over three times as many Mormons in the area, and don’t look now, but the Muslims are closing in.

Bahá’í web sites for southern South Carolina:

Louis G. Gregory Bahá’í Museum, Charleston. Entry by appointment only. Site last updated in 2003.

© 2012 Dan Jensen

My Life as a Fanatic

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When I was a young man, I turned toward the Qiblah and prayed to Allah. I fasted for a month every year, and I refused all alcoholic beverages. I exchanged Arabic greetings with my fellow believers. Of course I went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where I lived for a year and studied Arabic so that I could better understand the words of Allah. You might have found me carrying around a copy of the Holy Qur’án—just in case I might have some free reading time. And, yes: I was a virgin, though perhaps not entirely by choice.

If you had asked me back then whether I was a Muslim, I would have denied it, for I was a member of a Shi’ite splinter group that refuses to be identified as Muslims. It’s a long story—let’s just say that it’s hazardous to be called a heretic in Iran. But when I look back at my youth I say, “what a Muslim!”

I was a bit of a fundamentalist. No, I wasn’t outraged by the sight of a woman’s face or anything like that, though I was a bit of a stickler about modesty. Idolatry was my hang-up. I was something of a fanatic about it. I stood firm against the worship of men, and my stomach turned whenever one of my fellow believers presumed to be able to measure the goodness of any person. The soul was a sacred trust to me, and I thought it blasphemy to claim to be able to probe it. Did these people think that they knew the mind of God? These idolators saw their religious heroes as partners of God, whether they admitted it or not. And as for their enemies, …

Yes, I was a bit of a fanatic. I was such a radical iconoclast that I couldn’t help but see idolatry more and more in my religious community, right up to the day that I determined that my religion itself was a kind of idolatry. What a crazy Muslim I was.

I suppose I still am.

© 2012 Dan Jensen

A Protestant Revival in 19th Century Iran

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We are all familiar with the “Jesus is coming” meme, and many of us are aware that Jesus isn’t the only savior on the way. Some religions are given to hopes of saviors in the future. It’s no surprise that many people hope to be saved, like a slumbering beauty longs for her Prince Charming, though that salvation may mean the destruction of the world. This desire has been expressed among Christians and Muslims for as long as Christians and Muslims have walked the earth.

In the 13th Century, the Joachamites announced the Antichrist would appear in 1260, and Christ himself soon thereafter. Around 1750, one of the founders of the Shaker movement made the following announcement:

Repent. For the kingdom of God is at hand. The new heaven and new earth prophesied of old is about to come. The marriage of the Lamb, the first resurrection, the new Jerusalem descended from above, these are even now at the door. And when Christ appears again, and the true church rises in full and transcendent glory, then all anti-Christian denominations—the priests, the church, the pope—will be swept away.

History is littered with such millenarian outbursts. We need not enumerate them all here.

One such revival, commonly called the Second Great Awakening, featured characters like Joseph Smith and William Miller. Miller was a Baptist preacher who got out his notepad and his Bible and calculated the ETA of end of the world. Smith, the self-styled American Muhammad, brought his own Kingdom of Heaven down to Earth.

Pioneers in Persia

A surge of missionary activity seems to have accompanied this revival, and for Protestant Christians, the mission almost always involves the distribution of Bibles. This generally means printing Bibles in the local vernacular, so translation is a prerequisite.

Iran in 1808

The New Testament and Psalms were first translated into the Farsi (Persian) language in 1812. The task was completed in Shiraz, formerly the capital of Persia under Karim Khan and a city with an established Armenian Christian population, by an Anglican priest and a man from Shiraz. Not much later (1820), Shiraz was visited by the missionary Peter Gordon, who asserted that Shiraz was fertile ground for missionary work, and, of all cities in Persia, ought to be the focus of missionary attention. By 1825, the missionary Joseph Wolff established a Christian school for Armenian children in Shiraz.

These missionaries were not trying to convert Muslims, though they would have been happy to do so. Evangelizing to Muslims was a dangerous business, as it meant leading Muslims into apostasy, a capital offense. The missionaries were, rather,  after Jews and Christians of wayward denominations. But their activities, and presumably much of their message, may have been familiar to the Muslims of cities that were targets of missionary action. The revival itself, thanks in part to the missionaries, was spreading among the native Christians of the Middle East, and quite predictably, some Christians were heard to be expecting the imminent return of Christ.


Things had not gone well for Persia since the death of Karim Khan in 1779. The rise of the Qajars in 1794 was a particularly barbaric affair. In 1813 and 1828, Persia suffered military defeats and lost much territory to Russia, then a Christian empire. The Shah attacked the British Empire (Afghanistan) in 1837-38, but he was rebuffed by the British. Western influence began to increase steadily across Persia. This, no doubt, emboldened Christian missionaries, just as it surely wounded Persian honor.

By 1822, William Miller had completed his calculations and began to preach about the nearness of the Second Coming. He began with general pronouncements, but eventually coughed up the details:

My principles in brief, are, that Jesus Christ will come again to this earth, cleanse, purify, and take possession of the same, with all the saints, sometime between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844.

As is well known, Christ missed his date with destiny. Miller then selected an alternative Jewish calendar that would permit Jesus to arrive by April 18 without the risk of being deemed rude. The revised deadline also passed without incident.

I can almost hear the missionaries declaring “the end is nigh” and Persians thinking, “what have we got to lose?” in reply. They could have used a messiah at least as much as any missionary, but a Persian messiah would have to be a Muslim messiah, a mahdi.

The Shaykhis

Sometime after 1826, a Persian named Sayyid Kazim turned his Shayki following in a distinctly millenarian direction [1]. Kazim preached that the Muslim Mahdi, whom he identified as the Christian Messiah, was somewhere in the world, waiting to be discovered. Kazim stated quite clearly that he had not met this messiah. When Kazim died in 1843, he left his followers searching across the land for the Mahdi.

Sayyid Kazim had appointed a successor, Haji Karim Khan Kirmani, who would steer the Shaykhis away from Kazim’s millenarianism and back toward the movement’s less radical roots, but Persia was ripe for a savior, and the new Shayki leader couldn’t steer the ship of faith quickly enough to stop violence from breaking out across Persia.

Among Kazim’s disciples (and Karim Khan’s flock) was a young merchant from Shiraz whom Kazim had instructed at length and presumably sent back to Fars to seek the Messiah. Soon after Kazim died, and shortly after William Miller’s final calculations fell through, the young Shaykhi declared himself to be the Messiah. He was a little late to be Jesus (according to Miller’s reckoning), but better late than never. The young messiah inspired a jihad throughout Persia, and was duly executed in 1850. The rebellion raged on for years, but was put down. Ultimately, the movement renounced violence and was rebranded “the Baha’i Faith.” They continued to endure violent royal reprisals, and they are persecuted in Iran to this very day.



[1] It’s doubtful that the Shaykhis existed as a millenarian sect before Kazim took over, but even if it had, it wouldn’t have been so before about 1824.

© 2012 Dan Jensen

Messiah as Man

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“the more fallible the mammal, the truer the example.”
—Christopher Hitchens

I wasn’t brought up Christian, but I was brought up to believe in a holy trinity of sorts. I was taught that a certain few men were perfect images of God; that these men, though not God in essence, were perfect reflections of God in the “material world,” and thus they were effectively God so far as mankind is concerned. As images of God in the material realm (i.e., idols), they could be regarded as God incarnate. Hence Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of my parents’ religion wrote, “I am God.”

The metaphor I was given was made of three parts: the sun, the light of the sun, and a mirror. The sun represented God, the sunlight the Holy Spirit, and lastly, the mirror took the place of the incarnation, or as Bahá’ís say, the “manifestation,” a term which spiritualists have long equated with “materialization.” It is effectively equivalent to incarnation.

This theological model implied infallibility on the part of the manifestation, as a “perfect reflection” of God. Though infallibility was implicit, it was made quite explicit by Bahá’u’lláh’s writings. This model of perfect deification of individuals was extended, as it turned out, to various successors of Bahá’u’lláh, though nuance was applied to the notion of infallibility applied to the successors.

The doctrine of infallible succession, entitled “the Covenant,” is considered by Bahá’ís to be an unprecedented, eternal mandate from God that keeps the Bahá’í authorities “free from error.” This covenant that God keeps with Bahá’ís can be stated thus: so long as a Bahá’í is faithful to the authoritative succession, God will provide that Bahá’í with unerring guidance by means of that authority.

The doctrine was first established in Bahá’u’lláh’s last will and testament, entitled “the Book of the Covenant,” wherein he directed his followers to be faithful to his sons. This command was used by the prophet’s eldest son to claim himself to be an infallible exemplar for all Bahá’ís, just as Muhammad is regarded as a perfect example by most Muslims.

Like an abusive husband thrives on the inferiority of a submissive wife, religion often undermines humanity as a means to justifying its own existence. Christianity sees humans as hopeless sinners. Islám sees humans as powerless slaves. The Bahá’í Faith established its mandate upon an image of humans as blind sheep in need of continuous guidance. This the Bahá’í Faith did to an unprecedented degree, inasmuch as its “Covenant” is promised to continue to be manifested in this world in a much more thorough sense than in the case of the Catholic Papacy or the Shí’a Imamate.

I gave up on such divine authoritarianism long ago, chiefly because I found that it stifles independent thought and undermines human dignity; yet, as I look back at the history of the Bahá’í religion, I sometimes wonder whether it might have been originally conceived with more enlightened intentions. This is not to suggest that the Bahá’í religion can be redeemed in its current state of depravity, or even that Bahá’u’lláh was without fault.

Bahá’u’lláh had several of the markings of a reluctant messiah. He was 45 years old and living in exile when he finally declared himself the “promised one of all ages.” He’d recently disappeared for two years, apparently overwhelmed by the infighting amid his religious community. At the time, he claimed that he had been aware that he was a “manifestation” for over a decade. Perhaps he had been waiting for the right timing, perhaps to transform the passage of some number of years into a retroactive prophecy. It’s hard to even guess what might have been going on in his mind.

Bahá’u’lláh claimed to have become aware of his divine station while imprisoned in the “Black Pit” of Tehran at age 35, probably wondering whether he was about to be executed. He said he’d had a divine vision under the unbearable conditions of that former subterranean reservoir.  It should surprise no one that this man saw something remarkable while bent under the weight of heavy chains in a dark, damp, cave. What interests me is how long Bahá’u’lláh’s memory of that experience had to distill before he ever brought it to the attention of his religious community. Bahá’u’lláh’s Black Pit would make a fine analog to Muhammad’s Cave of Hira. The key difference for Bahá’u’lláh was that he was in mortal danger at the time and that he let the memory brew for a decade.

Did Bahá’u’lláh immediately come to believe that he was the world-Messiah? It doesn’t appear to be likely, but I don’t doubt that he convinced himself of it over time. He may have schemed consciously to some degree, but I think it likely that the subconscious mind ultimately took over. Yes, I believe he deluded himself, not that this would have been out of the ordinary. Men commonly delude themselves. It’s the nature of the beast. We may even look upon ourselves as naught but the delusions we craft for ourselves. We are quite adept at self-deception. We craft memories to develop narratives of our pasts. We rationalize. We forget when remembering is inconvenient. This is how the human mind operates.

I don’t think that Bahá’u’lláh’s delusion of grandeur was entirely malignant. There are signs that Bahá’u’lláh might have been something of a Bourgeois humanitarian, and his delusion might have saved a faltering messianic movement from itself and set it upon a progressive course. It’s not a great stretch to suggest that his writings emphasized human harmony, and why not advocate social change through religious revolution? There was perhaps no better forum for social change in the 19th Century Middle East than religion.

Even at his most tyrannical, Bahá’u’lláh often left us hints of a pragmatic purpose. When he spoke of the importance of fearing God, he directed his reasoning toward those whom he regarded as the shameless mass of men. When he wrote his very Muslim, retrograde “Book of Laws,” he said that he did so to satisfy certain elements among his following. He did say that men should be regarded as sheep, but I think he may have left room for exceptions, for the statement is not necessarily false if taken as a statement of sociological fact. Is it not true that most people prefer to live as sheep?

I often criticize Bahá’u’lláh for his undignified depiction of humanity, but perhaps pessimism about human vision is a forgivable failure. I consider this failure of faith in humanity to be the Achilles heel of Bahá’u’lláh‘s cause, but that crippling shortcoming does not necessarily render his efforts meaningless or in vain. Taken in the context of his time and place, we may yet be able to see Bahá’u’lláh as a progressive reformer—though no hero, saint, or messiah—in a religious milieu that was and remains in desperate need of reform.

© 2012 Dan Jensen

Dear Mr. Ayatollah

Posted in Politics | 2 Comments »

Dear Mr. Ayatollah,

Some time ago, a close Bahá’í relation of mine insinuated that I had encouraged you to persecute her fellow believers in Iran. This, I suppose, she did because I have often criticized her religion, having once been a Bahá’í myself. I was very troubled by this assertion of hers. I would hate to think that I had ever encouraged you to persecute anyone, so I am presently writing you to make certain that you have not misunderstood my statements on the subject.

Iran: Ethnicities and Sects

To be frank, I consider your treatment of the Bahá’ís of Iran inhumane, unjust, and thoroughly detrimental to the social welfare of the people of Iran. I consider it divisive and counterproductive.

Now I know the Bahá’ís have sometimes been their own worst enemy when it comes to public relations. They believe that they have received a new revelation from God, which they believe is destined to prevail over the earth. They speak of world government, a kingdom of God on earth, and as if that weren’t enough, they’ve gone and put their world headquarters in a place that has come to be known by the name “Israel.” I can see how some people might feel threatened by the ambitions of the Bahá’ís, but let us get a better look at them.

The Bahá’ís of Iran are not so different from their fellow countrymen. In many respects, they still cling to their Shi’ah heritage. They revere Muhammad, the Imams, and the angels. They too have guardians whom they consider divinely-guided and free from error. They are not as harsh as you in punishment, but they, like you, do not drink wine; like you they believe that men and women should have different roles in society; like you they do not approve of homosexuality; and they, like you, are very proud of their Iranian and Islamic heritage. But they are also proud of their particular sect, perhaps a little too proud.

Having heard Bahá’ís speak of their great destiny of spiritual conquest, you might feel justified in considering them an existential threat to your theocratic reign, but hear me out, because I think that you would be mistaken to fear them: the Bahá’ís, in spite of their lofty ambitions and triumphalistic rhetoric, are utterly impotent and harmless.

The Bahá’ís are harmless, but not merely because of they aspire to be non-violent and non-political. The Bahá’í religion is harmless because it has grown bureaucratic and stagnant with age, while its adherents have grown complacent and apathetic. Their temples may look glorious, but that is merely the mark of an influx of money. Morally and socially, the Bahá’í religion is not so vivacious as it once was. There is little spirit left in its adherents, and even less imagination. They are nearly invisible. The only recent victory they seem to have achieved is in seeking martyrdom at your hands. In your need to punish the Bahá’ís for their heresies, their vain ambitions, and the sins of a few among them, I fear that you are unwittingly playing into their impotent hands, and alas, you achieve nothing of sustained value in making martyrs of them.

It may sometimes be useful to mark a scapegoat, but one must use caution in doing so. It can be a risky task to scapegoat a people whom citizens meet on a daily basis, a scapegoat whom the people can readily see are too powerless to be an effective enemy. Attempting to scapegoat the wrong people, a purely Iranian people of Shi’ah heritage such as the Bahá’ís, can erode public confidence in your leadership.

It may be reasonably contended that some Iranian Bahá’ís have acted greedily. I have seen the ostentatious homes, clothes and cars of some Iranian Bahá’ís that fill many American Bahá’ís with envy and covetousness; I have seen the glorious Bahá’í construction projects in Israel that have undoubtedly been funded largely by wealthy Iranian Bahá’ís, and I wonder how so many Iranians can be so poor while so few are so rich. I can understand your suspicions. But if these men obtained their wealth by criminal means, they could be investigated and prosecuted. Instead, they have been driven overseas, and they have taken their fortunes with them, leaving many less fortunate Bahá’ís behind. Though you may regret having chased so much money away, the Bahá’ís that remain in Iran are certainly no threat to you.

Globally, the Bahá’í religion is no more threatening than those unfortunate native Bahá’ís stranded in your shadow. Their religion has long lost any mark of distinction by which it might be empowered. The only distinction that the Bahá’ís lately advertise is the blood on your hands, which they claim to be their own though it is also the blood of intellectuals, artists, dissidents, and homosexuals.

Listen to the Bahá’ís: they have little on their lips other than the courage of their martyrs. They hope that their imprisoned and executed heroes will bring their religion notoriety. If you wish to silence them, then ignore them; treat them as the ordinary Iranians that they are, and deny them the glory of martyrdom.


© 2011 Dan Jensen