By Eileen Maddocks
Note: Much information for this and the next two articles is from the extensive historical account The Dawn-Breakers: Nabíl’s Narrative of the Early Days of the Bahá’í Revelation by Nabíl-i-A’ẓam (1831‒1892). Nabíl-i-A’zam participated in many of the episodes covered in this book and he also obtained first-hand accounts from many survivors of the persecutions, including Mírzá Músá, the half-brother of Bahá’u’lláh, the Prophet-Founder of the Bahá’í Faith. Readers are urged not to get lost in the Persian names with their many diacritical marks but to follow the flow of events. Most other proper nouns have been anglicized (such as ulamas for ‘ulamás, Islamic clergy) except when in a quotation.
Nineteenth-century East and West were very different culturally and religiously. Millerism developed in a society that was largely literate. Religious freedom was not only legally protected but there was a diversity of religion with Catholic, Protestants, and Jews. The predominant religion, Protestantism, was extremely diverse with innumerable sects and theologies. Most important, North America was young and vibrant, a land of opportunity and forward thinking. There was also protection for the individual in democracy and the rule of law, if only for white men. Journalists could ridicule Millerism but, for the most part, believers in new and different beliefs did not suffer mob violence.
Persia was the opposite from the West. Persian culture was ancient culture and had fallen from its previous glory into depths of inertia and corruption. Most people were illiterate, and women were almost never educated. Shia Islam prevailed in a culture where religious freedom was an unknown concept. Leaving Islam for any reason was heresy and punishable by death. The Shah was an absolute ruler who appointed all government officials and could order anyone’s death. There was no secular rule of law. Islam and the Shah were the law. Persia was as weak as the West was strong. It was backward, and corrupt with no cohesive plans of action to adapt to western technology and no inclination to adapt to western values. Therefore, dissemination of the imminent coming of the fullness of time mentioned in the Qur’án, the promised One, the Qa’im, was undertaken very cautiously in Persia.
Expectancy in Shia Islam was not associated with the calculation of various prophecies and dates as it was in Christianity. Instead, only a few spiritually attuned souls were able to understand allegorical references in Islamic Scripture and intuit that the day was near. One such soul was Shaykh (1) Ahmad-i-Ahsá’í (1745‒‒1826), who was born in today’s Bahrain. Nabíl-i-A’zam’s first paragraph about him states:
At a time when the shining reality of the Faith of Muhammad had been obscured by the ignorance, the fanaticism, and perversity of the contending sects into which it had fallen, there appeared above the horizon of the East that luminous Star of Divine guidance, Shaykh Ahmad-i-Ahsá’í. He observed how those who professed the Faith of Islam had shattered its unity, sapped its force, perverted its purpose, and degraded its holy name. His soul was filled with anguish at the sight of the corruption and strife which characterised the Shi’ah sect of Islam. Inspired by the light that shone within him, he arose with unerring vision, with fixed purpose, and sublime detachment to utter his protest against the betrayal of the Faith by that ignoble people. Aglow with zeal and conscious of the sublimity of his calling, he vehemently appealed not only to Shi’ah Islam but to all the followers of Muhammad throughout the East, to awaken from the slumber of negligence and to prepare the way for Him who must needs be made manifest in the fulness of time, whose light alone could dissipate the mists of prejudice and ignorance which had enveloped that Faith. (2)
Shaykh Ahmad, who was highly educated as a Muslim cleric, felt compelled at age forty to journey to what is today called Iraq, especially to the cities of Karbilá and Najaf. He was recognized as a mujtahid, which was an authorized expounder of Islamic holy writings, and he developed a large following. In those times Muslims customarily pursued an Islamic education by finding a mujtahid, who commented on Quranic verses and conducted endless discussions on them. Unlike most mujtahids, Shaykh Ahmad was humble and gentle, believing that he must prepare men’s hearts for the return of the twelth Imam. However, contrary to Islamic thought, he knew that this holy being would not come to redeem Islam. “There burned in his soul the conviction that no reform, however drastic, within the Faith of Islam, could achieve the regeneration of this perverse people. He knew, and was destined by the Will of God to demonstrate, that nothing short of a new and independent Revelation, as attested and foreshadowed by the sacred Scriptures of Islam, could revive the fortunes and restore the purity of that decadent Faith.” (3)
After several years in Iraq “and inhaling the fragrance which wafted upon him from Persia,” (4) he felt in his heart an irrepressible yearning to hasten to that country.” He had not yet, however, found anyone with whom he could share his innermost convictions. In Persia he would search zealously for disciples who would be open to his most important teaching.
Shaykh Ahmad first visited the city of Shiraz and praised it. “How often and how passionately he extolled that city! Such was the praise he lavished upon it that his hearers, who were only too familiar with its mediocrity, were astonished at the tone of his language. ‘Wonder not,’ he said to those who were surprised, ‘for ere long the secret of my words will be made manifest to you. Among you there shall be a number who will live to behold the glory of a Day which the prophets of old have yearned to witness.’” (5) From Shiraz would come Mírzá ‘Alí-Muḥammad, who in 1844 would declare himself to be the promised One, the Báb.
Years later when near Tehran Shaykh Ahmad had a similar feeling come to him from Núr, which was located north of Tehran. Mírzá Buzurg, a well-regarded minister in the court of the Shah, had a country home in Núr, where his son, Mírzá Ḥusayn-‘Alí was born in 1817. In time, the Báb would name him Bahá’u’lláh, which translates from Arabic to the Glory of God.
As was his pattern, Shaykh Ahmad taught in successive cities in Persia. Finally he met in the city of Yazd the one with whom he could share everything, a new disciple named Siyyid Káẓim-i-Rashti, who was well educated and attuned to higher spiritual thought. After a few weeks, Shaykh Ahmad left his disciples in the care of Siyyid (6) Káẓim and continued on his travels.
In his latter years, Shaykh Ahmad gave special attention to his most promising disciples so that they would recognize the events that were to come and would support the new Cause. He wrote books and epistles expounding on veiled Quranic and hadith references to that day. He made many references to Ḥusayn, meaning not ‘Alí the first Imám ‘Alí but ‘Alí-Muḥammad of Shiraz, and to Ḥusayn, meaning not the third Imám Ḥusayn but the Ḥusayn whose birth he had intuited in Núr.
From time to time Shaykh Ahmad and Siyyid Káẓim met, giving opportunities for Shaykh Ahmad to groom his successor. Their last meeting was in Karbilá shortly before the aged Shaykh Ahmad left for Mecca. Nabíl-i-A’zam wrote of the last advice given to Siyyid Káẓim:
Ere he departed from Karbilá, he confided to Siyyid Káẓim, his chosen successor, the secret of his mission, and instructed him to strive to kindle in every receptive heart the fire that had burned so brightly within him. However much Siyyid Káẓim insisted on accompanying him as far as Najaf, Shaykh Ahmad refused to comply with his request. “You have no time to lose,” were the last words which he addressed to him. “Every fleeting hour should be fully and wisely utilised. You should gird up the loin of endeavour and strive day and night to rend asunder, by the grace of God and by the hand of wisdom and loving-kindness, those veils of heedlessness that have blinded the eyes of men. For verily I say, the Hour is drawing nigh, the Hour I have besought God to spare me from witnessing, for the earthquake of the Last Hour will be tremendous. You should pray to God to be spared the overpowering trials of that Day, for neither of us is capable of withstanding its sweeping force. Others, of greater endurance and power, have been destined to bear this stupendous weight, men whose hearts are sanctified from all earthly things, and whose strength is reinforced by the potency of His power.”
Shaykh Ahmad died soon afterwards at age 81. His body was taken to Medina where it was buried in the Cemetery Báqí’ in Medina, close to the tomb of Muḥammad. But his disciples, among them Mullá Ḥusayn, kept his cause alive and continued their search for the promised One, the Qa’im.
1 Shaykh was an honorific for outstanding scholars of Islam.
2 Nabíl-i-A’zam, The Dawn-Breakers, 1. This book is in print and is also available online at http://bahai-library.com/nabil_dawnbreakers.
3 Ibid., 2
4 Ibid., 4.
5 Ibid., 4‒5.
6 The title Siyyid was bestowed upon all male descendants of Muḥammad.
7 The Dawn-Breakers, 16.