The Bab's Writings
Part 4 of the Mission of the Bab. Read part 3 of the article >
Apart from the specific laws of the Bayán, the Báb’s writings also contain the seeds of new spiritual perspectives and concepts which were to animate the worldwide Bahá’í enterprise. Beginning from the belief universally accepted by Muslims that God is one and transcendent, the Báb cuts sharply through the welter of conflicting doctrines and mystical speculations that had accumulated over more than 12 centuries of Islamic history. God is not only One and Single; He is utterly unknowable to humankind and will forever remain so. There is no direct connection between the Creator of all things and His creation.
The only avenue of approach to the Divine Reality behind existence is through the succession of Messengers Whom He sends. God manifests Himself to humanity in this fashion, and it is in the Person of His Manifestation that human consciousness can become aware of both the Divine Will and the Divine attributes. What the scriptures have described as meeting God, knowing God,worshiping God, serving God, refers to the response of the soul when it recognizes the new Revelation. The advent of the Messenger of God is itself the Day of Judgment. The Báb thus denies the validity of Súfí belief in the possibility of the individual’s mystical merging with the Divine Being through meditation and esoteric practices:
Deceive not your own selves that you are being virtuous for the sake of God when you are not. For should ye truly do your works for God, ye would be performing them for Him Whom God shall make manifest and would be magnifying His Name. ... Ponder awhile that ye may not be shut out as by a veil from Him Who is the Dayspring of Revelation.
Going far beyond the orthodox Islamic conception of a succession of the Prophets that terminates with the mission of Muhammad, the Báb also declares the Revelation of God to be a recurring and never-ending phenomenon whose purpose is the gradual training and development of humankind. As human consciousness recognizes and responds to each Divine Messenger, the spiritual, moral, and intellectual capacities latent in it steadily develop, thus preparing the way for recognition of God’s next Manifestation.
The Manifestations of God—including Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad—are one in essence, although their physical persons differ, as do those aspects of their teachings that relate to an ever-evolving human society. Each can be said to have two stations: the human and the Divine. Each brings two proofs of His mission: His own Person and the truths He teaches. Either of these testimonies is sufficient for any sincerely inquiring soul; the issue is purity of intention, and this human quality is particularly valued in the Báb’s writings. Through unity of faith, reason and behavior, each person can, with the confirmations of God, reach that stage of development where one seeks for others the same things that one seeks for oneself.
Those who sincerely believe in the Messenger whose faith they follow are prepared by it to recognize the next Revelation from the one Divine Source. They thus become instruments through which the Word of God continues to realize its purpose in the life of humankind. This is the real meaning of the references in past religions to resurrection. Heaven and hell, similarly, are not places but conditions of the soul. An individual enters paradise in this world when he recognizes God’s Revelation and begins the process of perfecting his nature, a process that has no end, since the soul itself is immortal. In the same way, the punishments of God are inherent in a denial of His Revelation and disobedience to laws whose operation no one can escape.
Many of these concepts in the Báb’s writing can appeal to various references or at least intimations in the scriptures of earlier religions. It will be obvious from what has been said, however, that the Báb places them in an entirely new context and draws from them implications very different from those which they bore in any previous religious system.
The Báb described His teachings as opening the sealed wine referred to in both the Qur’án and New Testament. The Day of God does not envision the end of the world, but its perennial renewal. The earth will continue to exist, as will the human race, whose potentialities will progressively unfold in response to the successive impulses of the Divine. All people are equal in the sight of God, and the race has now advanced to the point where, with the imminent advent of Him Whom God will manifest, there is neither need nor place for a privileged class of clergy. Believers are encouraged to see the allegorical intent in passages of scriptures which were once viewed as references to supernatural or magical events. As God is one, so phenomenal reality is one, an organic whole animated by the Divine Will.
The contrast between this evolutionary and supremely rational conception of the nature of religious truth and that embodied by 19th-century Shí‘ih Islam could not have been more dramatic. Fundamental to orthodox Shí‘ism—whose full implications are today exposed in the regime of the Islamic Republic in Iran—was a literalistic understanding of the Qur’án, a preoccupation with meticulous adherence to the sharí‘a, a belief that personal salvation comes through the imitation (taqlíd) of clerical mentors, and an unbending conviction that Islam is God’s final and all-sufficient revelation of truth to the world. For so static and rigid a mindset, any serious consideration of the teachings of the Báb would have unthinkable consequences.
The Báb’s teachings, like the laws of the Bayán, are enunciated not in the form of an organized exposition, but lie rather embedded in the wide range of theological and mystical issues addressed in the pages of His voluminous writings. It is in the writings of Bahá’u’lláh that, as with the laws of the Bayán, these scattered truths and precepts are taken up, reshaped, and integrated into a unified, coherent system of belief. The subject lies far beyond the scope of this brief paper, but the reader will find in Bahá’u’lláh’s major doctrinal work, the Kitáb-i-Íqán (Book of Certitude), not only echoes of the Báb’s teachings, but a coherent exposition of their central concepts.
Finally, a striking feature of the Báb’s writings, which has emerged as an important element of Bahá’í belief and history, is the mission envisioned for the peoples of the West and admiration of the qualities that fit them for it. This, too, was in dramatic contrast to the professed contempt for farangi and infidel thought that prevailed in the Islamic world of His time. Western scientific advancement is particularly praised, for example, as are the fairness of mind and concern for cleanliness that the Báb saw Westerners on the whole as tending to display. His appreciation is not merely generalized but touches on even such mundane matters as postal systems and printing facilities.
At the outset of the Báb’s mission, the Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’ called on the peoples of the West to arise and leave their homes in promotion of the Day of God:
Become as true brethren in the one and indivisible religion of God, free from distinction, for verily God desireth that your hearts should become mirrors unto your brethren in the Faith, so that ye find yourselves reflected in them, and they in you. This is the true Path of God, the Almighty ....
To a British physician who treated Him for injuries inflicted during his interrogation in Tabríz, the Báb expressed His confidence that, in time, Westerners, too, would embrace the truth of His mission.
This theme is powerfully taken up in the work of Bahá’u’lláh. A series of tablets called on such European rulers as Queen Victoria, Napoleon III, Kaiser Wilhelm I, and Tsar Alexander II to examine dispassionately the Cause of God. The British monarch is warmly commended for the actions of her government in abolishing slavery throughout the empire and for the establishment of constitutional government. Perhaps the most extraordinary theme the letters contain is a summons, a virtual mandate to the Rulers of America and the Presidents of the Republics therein. They are called on to bind … the broken with the hands of justice and to crush the oppressor who flourisheth with the rod of the commandments of their Lord.
Anticipating the decisive contribution which Western lands and peoples are destined to make in founding the institutions of world order, Bahá’u’lláh wrote:
In the East the Light of His Revelation hath broken; in the West have appeared the signs of His dominion. Ponder this in your hearts, O people ....
It was on ‘Abdu’l-Bahá that responsibility devolved to lay the foundations for this distinctive feature of the missions of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh. Visiting both Western Europe and North America in the years 1911–1913, He coupled high praise for the material accomplishments of the West with an urgent appeal that they be balanced with the essentials of spiritual civilization.
During the years of World War I, after returning to the Holy Land, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá drafted a series of letters addressed to the small body of Bahá’u’lláh’s followers in the United States and Canada, summoning them to arise and carry the Bahá’í message to the remotest corners of the globe. As soon as international conditions permitted, these Bahá’ís began to respond. Their example has since been followed by members of the many other Bahá’í communities around the world which have proliferated during subsequent decades.
To the North American believers, too, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá confided the task of laying the foundations of the democratically elected institutions conceived by Bahá’u’lláh for the administration of the affairs of the Bahá’í community. The entire decision-making structure of the present-day administrative system of the Faith at local, national, and international levels, had its origins in these simple consultative assemblies formed by the American and Canadian believers.
Bahá’ís see a parallel pattern of response to the Divine mandate, however unrecognized, in the growing leadership Western nations have assumed throughout the present century in the efforts to bring about global peace. This is particularly true of the endeavor to inaugurate a system of international order. For his own vision in this respect, as well as for the lonely courage that the effort to realize it required, the immortal Woodrow Wilson won an enduring place of honor in the writings of the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith.
Bahá’ís are likewise aware that it has been such governments as those of Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia which have taken the lead in the field of human rights. The Bahá’í community has experienced at first hand the benefits of this concern in the successful interventions undertaken on behalf of its members in Iran during the recurrent persecutions under the regimes of the Pahlavi shahs and the Islamic Republic.
Nothing of what has been said should suggest an uncritical admiration of European or North American cultures on the part of either the Báb or Bahá’u’lláh nor an endorsement of the ideological foundations on which they rest. Far otherwise. Bahá’u’lláh warns in ominous tones of the suffering and ruin that will be visited upon the entire human race if Western civilization continues on its course of excess. During His visits to Europe and America, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá called on His hearers in poignant language to free themselves, while time still remained, from racial and national prejudices, as well as materialistic preoccupations, whose unappreciated dangers, He said, threatened the future of their nations and of all humankind.
Today, a century and a half after the Báb’s mission was inaugurated, the influence of His life and words has found expression in a global community drawn from every background on earth. The first act of most Bahá’í pilgrims on their arrival at the World Centre of their Faith is to walk up the flower-bordered avenue leading to the exquisite Shrine housing the Báb’s mortal remains, and to lay their foreheads on the threshold of His resting place. They confidently believe that, in future years, pilgrim kings will reverently ascend the magnificent terraced staircase rising from the foot of the Mountain of God to the Shrine’s entrance, and place the emblems of their authority at this same threshold. In the countries from which the pilgrims come, countless children from every background and every language today bear the names of the Báb’s martyred companions—Tahirih, Quddús, Husayn, Zaynab, Vahid, Anís— much as children throughout the lands of the Roman empire began 2,000 years ago to carry the unfamiliar Hebrew names of the disciples of Jesus Christ.
Bahá’u’lláh’s choice of a resting place for the body of His Forerunner—brought with infinite difficulty from Persia—itself holds great significance for the Bahá’í world. Throughout history the blood of martyrs has been the seed of faith. In the age that is witnessing the gradual unification of humankind, the blood of the Bábí martyrs has become the seed not merely of personal faith, but of the administrative institutions which are, in the words of Shoghi Effendi, the nucleus and the very pattern of the World Order conceived by Bahá’u’lláh. The relationship is symbolized by the supreme position that the Shrine of the Báb occupies in the progressive development of the administrative center of the Bahá’í Faith on Mount Carmel.
Few there must be among the stream of Bahá’í pilgrims entering these majestic surroundings today whose minds do not turn to the familiar words in which the Báb said farewell 150 years ago to the handful of His first followers, all of them bereft of influence or wealth and most of them destined, as He was, soon to lose their lives:
The secret of the Day that is to come is now concealed. It can neither be divulged nor estimated. The newly born babe of that Day excels the wisest and most venerable men of this time, and the lowliest and most unlearned of that period shall surpass in understanding the most erudite and accomplished divines of this age. Scatter throughout the length and breadth of this land, and, with steadfast feet and sanctified hearts, prepare the way for His coming. Heed not your weaknesses and frailty; fix your gaze upon the invincible power of the Lord, your God, the Almighty. ... Arise in His name, put your trust wholly in Him, and be assured of ultimate victory.
Author’s note: I am indebted to Dr. Muhammad Afnan and Ms. Elizabeth Martin for advice and assistance in the preparation of this article.