Our Daily Bread: Mazda in the Shadows

The Bahá’í religion, though Islamic in its fundamentals, retains a remarkable wealth of Zoroastrian residue from its Iranian heritage.

The Faravahar: Glory of God

The Most Great Peace

In spite of all the prophecies of doom that I had to endure as a young Bahá’í, I remember having a vision of a more distant future utopia; a clean, civilized world civilization that would balance urban and rural economies, and accomplish great scientific and technological feats. This is what Bahá’ís call the Most Great Peace. Though I now find it unrealistic, I still look back on that naive vision with sentimental sighs of what might have been if reality hadn’t broken into my childhood and robbed my world of its innocence.

Yet there are many Bahá’ís who still look forward to the Most Great Peace.

It was years after I abandoned that vision that I encountered the ancient vision in whose womb the Most Great Peace appears to have been conceived. I discovered that the ancient Zoroastrians also had such a utopian vision of a renewed, purified world. Note that they weren’t looking forward to the end of the world, but rather its reform and renewal. This vision permeates both Bahá’í and Zoroastrian world views.

Progressive Revelation

It’s not just a utopian view of the future that these oldest and newest of Iranian religions have in common, but their views on the purpose and history of religion are also quite similar:

Be it known that, the reason for mankind becoming doers of work of a superior kind is religion; and it is owing to it only that there is a living in prosperity through the Creator. It is always necessary to send it (religion) from time to time to keep men back from being mixed up with sin and to regenerate them. … All the reformers of mankind (i.e. prophets) are considered as connected with its (religion’s) design;… —Dénkard 3.35

Thoughts, Words, & Deeds

The phrase “doers of work” in the above passage is reminiscent of the great Zoroastrian mantra “good thoughts good words good deeds.” Does this not recall one of characteristic themes of the Bahá’í Faith, as a religion of deeds that recognizes the influential nature of words?

Glory, Light, & Fire

As I’ve discussed before, the closely related themes of fire, light, and glory are also held in common between these two faiths. Some of this commonality can be tracked through Iranian religious themes of illumination and glory from Zoroastrianism through Shí’a Islám to the Bahá’í Faith.

The “New” Calendar

Then there’s the Bahá’í calendar, which is based on the old Iranian solar calendar—from name days, feasts, an end-of-year adjustment, to No Rooz itself, rather than the lunar Islamic calendar, except that the Bahá’í calendar replaces the natural 12:1 lunar:solar cycle ratio with 19:1, and inserts a month of fasting (in Islamic fashion).

Fire Temples and Sunrise Temples

Even the Bahá’í “mashriqu’l-adhkar”, a term that carries an intimation of fire in its meaning “dawning place of remembrance” seems to hearken back to the old Persian fire temples than the Islamic mosques that were also inspired thereby:

… The fire-temples of the world stand as eloquent testimony to this truth. In their time they summoned, with burning zeal, all the inhabitants of the earth to Him Who is the Spirit of purity. —Bahá’u’lláh, in a letter to Mírzá Abu’l-Fadl

Etc.

  • emphasis on cleanliness
  • love of gardens (Zoroastrians are famous gardeners)
  • 15 as the age of maturity (or is it technically 14 for Bahá’ís?)

Some related entries:

Our Daily Bread: Changing Faces

Bahá’u’lláh’s letter to Mánikchí Ṣáḥib, as we considered recently, is a rather progressive composition, and one can easily detect signs that it was addressed to a Zoroastrian. Without going so far as to recite “good thought, good words, good deeds”, the letter discussed the triad of good thought, expression, and action that is so familiar to Zoroastrians, and exalted the place of wisdom to divinity as we’re told Zoroaster did three millennia ago. It did not touch upon the more obvious theme of fire, which Bahá’u’lláh did in a couple of letters to Zoroastrian Baháís, but gave passing reference to the theme of purity. Like Bahá’u’lláh’s letters to Zoroastrian Baháís, that letter omitted any mention of Muhammad, Islám, or the Qur’án.

Beside all that, the letter was just plain warm and affectionate:

Thy letter hath reached this captive of the world in His prison. It brought joy, strengthened the ties of friendship, and renewed the memory of bygone days. Praise be to the Lord of creation Who granted us the favour of meeting in the Arabian land, 1wherein we visited and held converse. It is Our hope that our encounter may never be forgotten nor effaced from the heart by the passage of time, but rather that, out of the seeds thus sown, the sweet herbs of friendship may spring forth and remain forever fresh and verdant for all to behold. (1.3)

Bahá’u’lláh’s letter to Mírzá Abu’l-Fadl, also in the volume Tabernacle of Unity, is conspicuously different, and of evident Islamic content and character.

Make sure the butter’s soft. Today we are nourished by several slices, beginning with this:

Once the validity of a divinely appointed Prophet hath been established, to none is given the right to ask why or wherefore. Rather is it incumbent upon all to accept and obey whatsoever He saith. (2.46)

This is a reponse to the basic question of reason vs. revelation: should we live according to reason, or according to the dictates of revelation? Whereas Bahá’u’lláh’s letter to Mánikchí Ṣáḥib seemed to take the former position, his letter to Mírzá Abu’l-Fadl takes the opposite position, as clearly and concisely as Bahá’u’lláh ever did. That is not to say that he didn’t make similar statements elsewhere, for he certainly did, in the Aqdas, Íqán, and in other places.

The reason given in the present letter is that men do not possess the rational capacity to go it alone:

It is nonetheless indisputably clear and evident that the minds of men have never been, nor shall they ever be, of equal capacity. The Perfect Intellect alone can provide true guidance and direction. (2.22)

Thus it must be that, according to Bahá’u’lláh, human reason is better fitted to understand the words of the prophets than what it might otherwise gather from life.

It is important to note, though, that excessive analysis of scripture can be a hazardous pastime. For, because of the great variance in intellectual capacity, scripture is conceived to be understood by feeble minds as well as Sen McGlinn. It isn’t a matter of reason or evidence; it’s a matter of obedience:

It is incumbent upon all to turn their gaze towards the Cause of God and to observe that which hath dawned above the horizon of His Will, since it is through the potency of His name that the banner of “He doeth what He willeth” hath been unfurled and the standard of “He ordaineth what He pleaseth” hath been raised aloft. For instance, were He to pronounce water itself to be unlawful, it would indeed become unlawful, and the converse holdeth equally true. (2.31)

And finally, we have a fourth slice that echoes the opening passage of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas:

The whole duty of man is to recognize Him; once this hath been achieved, then whatsoever He may please to ordain is binding and in full accordance with the requirements of divine wisdom. (2.24)

Sorry: that’s a lot of toast, and the slices aren’t thin. Don’t eat it all at once.

Perhaps the fact that the letter is addressed to a Muslim Baháí has a lot to do with Bahá’u’lláh’s striking change in tone and content in this letter. This leads me to pause and wonder, can the entire repertoire of Bahá’u’lláh be sliced cleanly into mutually distinct revelations, if the blade is sufficiently sharp and serrated?

Our Daily Bread: Flamin’ Metaphors

Two of the letters that Bahá’u’lláh wrote to Zoroastrian Bahá’ís touched upon the theme of fire, the primary symbol of Zoroastrianism. In one letter, he simply mentioned fire several times, along with several other Zoroastrian themes (light, deeds, charity, gardens, water, and purity). There’s a lot of key terms thrown in, but not much food for thought, IMHO. In the other letter, he goes into greater depth, so we have cut today’s slice from that letter:

O friends of God! Incline your inner ears to the voice of the peerless and self-subsisting Lord, that He may deliver you from the bonds of entanglement and the depths of darkness and enable you to attain the eternal light. Ascent and descent, stillness and motion, have come into being through the will of the Lord of all that hath been and shall be. The cause of ascent is lightness, and the cause of lightness is heat. Thus hath it been decreed by God. The cause of stillness is weight and density, which in turn are caused by coldness.

Though there are indications that fire is an important metaphor to Bahá’u’lláh as a source of light, the only explicit statement in this letter regarding the metaphorical value of fire regards it as a source of heat, motion, and presumably energy in general.

Bahá’u’lláh continues:

And since He hath ordained heat to be the source of motion and ascent and the cause of attainment to the desired goal, He hath therefore kindled with the mystic hand that Fire that dieth not and sent it forth into the world, that this divine Fire might, by the heat of the love of God, guide and attract all mankind to the abode of the incomparable Friend.

Bahá’u’lláh appears to be under the impression that these metaphors have not occurred to anyone before him:

This is the mystery enshrined in your Book that was sent down aforetime, a mystery which hath until now remained concealed from the eyes and hearts of men.

Note the phrasing “your Book,” which seems indicative of some degree of estrangement, or at least displacement, and lack of perfect camaraderie. This was not the only time that Bahá’u’lláh spoke of the Avesta as such. In fact, that’s the only way I’ve ever seen him refer to the Avesta. Did he ever refer to the Qur’án as “your Book?”. Bahá’u’lláh evidently regarded himself as a Muslim, but I digress.

I think it’s a safe bet that, had Bahá’u’lláh acquainted himself more with Zoroastrian scholarship, he may have been exposed to a number of other less obvious fire metaphors, such as those associated with purification, assessment of purity, transformation, transmutation, moral truth, and order. Not that he didn’t delve into such themes, he just didn’t appear to recognize their relationship to the fire that the Avesta calls “Asha”.

One of my favorite fire metaphors is the Logos image of Heraclitus, a Greek subject of the Persian Empire who was quite probably familiar with Zoroastrianism, as well as Armenian fire worship.

Our Daily Bread: the Sanctity of Life

Today’s white slice of wisdom comes from The Tabernacle of Unity, a compilation of works of Bahá’u’lláh published in 2006. It advises Bahá’ís on the extent to which they ought to value human life:

O servants! This nether world is the abode of demons: Guard yourselves from approaching them. By demons is meant those wayward souls who, with the burden of their evil deeds, slumber in the chambers of oblivion. Their sleep is preferable to their wakefulness, and their death is better than their life.

What value, then, should be put on human life? It is well-known that Bahá’u’lláh was not against the death penalty, or even cruel punishment:

Should anyone intentionally destroy a house by fire, him also shall ye burn; should anyone deliberately take another’s life, him also shall ye put to death. —Kitáb-i-Aqdas

There’s no deterrent like execution, or better yet, a painful execution.

It seems fair to suggest that Bahá’u’lláh adopted the Islamic standard with regard to corporeal punishment, but would Bahá’u’lláh also advise that anyone authoritatively judged as a “demon” (say, a covenant breaker) be put out of their misery? Would Bahá’u’lláh also adopt an Islamic standard in that regard?

After all, their death is better than their life. Right?

To address this question, we might inquire whether Bahá’u’lláh might have ever ordered the assassination of an enemy. He had certainly been accused of such an act, but—not surprisingly—he claimed to be innocent of the crime.