published in the Bahá'í Studies Review 5.1 (1995)
In the Kitáb-i-Íqán, Bahá'u'lláh deals with Christian and Muslim expectations of the return of such figures as Christ and the Shí'í Imáms. In the process of putting forward his descriptions of the prophets of the past and his explanations of the way in which he and the Báb have fulfilled prophecies of return, Bahá'u'lláh advances the outline of a theory that the lives of the prophet-founders of the world religions have in certain key ways re-capitulated each other. The purpose of this paper is to fill out the details of this idea that there are certain archetypal patterns in the lives of the prophets.
In the Kitáb-i-Íqán, Bahá'u'lláh deals with Christian and Muslim expectations of the return (raj'a, rij'at) of such figures as Christ and the Shí'í Imáms. This was of course a key question in terms of the claims which the Báb had advanced and which Bahá'u'lláh would put forward a few years after the promulgation of this book. Since he was putting forward the claim that the Báb (and hence himself by implication) was the fulfilment of the messianic expectations in Christianity and Islam, it was necessary to advance reasons why his advent did not fulfil the popular expectations of how these returns would occur.
In the process of putting forward his explanations of the way in which he and the Báb fulfilled prophecies of return, Bahá'u'lláh has put together a prophetology which it is the purpose of this paper to examine in more detail. In brief, Bahá'u'lláh claims that the return that is spoken of in prophecy is not a literal physical return but a recurrence of certain archetypal patterns. Thus, in this sense each of the prophet-founders of the world religions (the Manifestations of God in Bahá'í terminology) is the return of all the previous prophet-founders.
Why should Muammad, that Essence of truthfulness, have charged the people of His day with the murder of Abel or the other Prophets? Thou hast none other alternative except...to maintain that those people of wickedness were the self-same people who in every age opposed and caviled at the Prophets and Messengers of God, till they finally caused them all to suffer martydom...
Strive therefore to comprehend the meaning of "return" which hath been so explicitly revealed in the Qur'án itself, and which none hath as yet understood. What sayest thou? If thou sayest that Muammad was the "return" of the Prophets of old, as is witnessed by this verse, His Companions must likewise be the "return" of the bygone Companions, even as the "return" of the former people is clearly attested by the text of the above-mentioned verses. And if thou deniest this, thou hast surely repudiated the truth of the Qur'án, the surest testimony of God unto men.(3)
The history of the world's religions is, in most cases, linked to a prophet-founder figure who holds a pivotal position in the religion. In most religions this figure is obvious and identifiable. In Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism, the identities of the central figures are in little doubt--Christ, Muammad, Zoroaster, and the Buddha, respectively. The Bahá'í Faith had two founders, the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh, of whom the latter is the more important. In some religions, however, and in particular the older religions, the central figure is not so clear-cut. In Judaism, the oldest religion in the Western theistic tradition, there is a string of major prophets going back over several thousand years: Noah, Abraham, Moses, as well as many minor prophets. However, of these, Moses, as the bringer of the Law from God, has a special place. In Hinduism, the oldest of the Indian religions, there is scripture going back over three thousand years or more but no specific figure is associated with these works. However, in Vaishnavite Hinduism, there is the concept of a line of avatars--incarnations of the deity--who come to earth "to restore righteousness".(4) It is probable that behind the mass of myth and legend, some of these avatars were historical figures. The most recent of these avatars is Krishna.(5) He is said to have given the teaching that is contained in the Bhagavad-Gita, one of the most important and influential books in Hinduism. The list of prophets studied in this paper is not, of course, intended to be an exclusive list of prophet-founders.
It will clearly be easier to consider the lives of the prophet-founders of the more recent past for this comparison rather than figures such as Krishna who are shrouded in mythological elaboration (although the lives of none of these figures is totally free of mythical elaboration(6)). And so, in the following comparison, it will be mainly the lives of the more recent historical figures which will be explored.(7)
These prophet-founders of religion have come from a wide variety of social backgrounds. The Buddha was a prince; Moses had a royal upbringing; Bahá'u'lláh was from a family of the nobility in Iran; Muammad and the Báb were from merchant families; while Christ was from a humble working background. Even those who came from an elevated social background, however, lost their wealth at some stage in their lives. They became one of the poor and despised of the world. The Buddha left his palace and wealth and became a wandering ascetic; Moses was forced to flee from a life of luxury in the royal family of Egypt; Bahá'u'lláh lost all of his inherited wealth when he joined the movement of the Báb, his predecessor.
Miraculous stories are related about the birth and childhood of each of these figures. Common features include some form of Divine intervention in the process of conception, speaking from inside the womb, speaking immediately after birth, and a miraculous degree of prescience and wisdom as an infant. It is easy to dismiss these stories as pious exaggeration and myth-making but that would be to miss the point. The authors of these stories are not trying to create an empirical record--they are not trying to do the work that a video-camera would do in our day. It would be more accurate to think of them as making a theological statement. What they are trying to say is that the birth of this child was no ordinary event--it was the birth of a supra-mundane being. The only way to portray this is to describe the event in a supernatural way.(8) In any case, despite these stories of birth and infant miracles, it would appear that these figures grow to adulthood leading ordinary lives.
There is often a precursor, a holy figure who recognised the prophet-founder when the latter was a child or who prophesied to the people his imminent advent. For the Buddha, it is the monk Asita (Kala Devala); for Jesus, it is John the Baptist; for Muammad, it is Bahíra the monk; for the Báb, it is Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsá'í and Siyyid Kázim Rashtí; for Bahá'-u'lláh, it is the Báb himself.
In the case of each of these prophet-founders of the world religions, there is one particular significant event that appears to signal the start of their ministry. It is as though before this initiatory event, they are ordinary men and then they become religious giants. With Moses, it was the episode of the Burning Bush; in the case of the Buddha, it was his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree; for Christ, the descent of the Spirit of God in the form of a dove lighting upon him after his baptism by John; with Muammad, it was the appearance to him of the Angel Gabriel on the side of Mount Hira; for the Báb, it was a vision of the head of the Imam Husayn; and in the case of Bahá'u'lláh, it was a Maid of Heaven who appeared before him as he lay in chains in a dungeon in Tehran.(9)
Most of these figures appear, after this initiatory experience, to have had doubts or to have felt the need for a period of solitude during which they prepared themselves for their mission. The Buddha struggled with Mara, the personification of evil, prior to his enlightenment and, after it, he spent days pondering the question of whether to bring the truth that had come to him to the people of the world; Christ spent forty days in the desert during which he struggled with Satan; Muammad had grave doubts about the nature of his vision and sought reassurance from his wife; Zoroaster is reported to have spent time in the wilderness; Bahá'u'lláh spent two years at the start of his ministry in the mountains of Sulaymaniyya, much of that time on his own.
Following the initiatory event, these figures did not go out immediately
and proclaim their mission to the world. Rather they gathered around themselves
a small group of disciples. Christ gathered the Twelve Apostles; Muammad
collected around him a small group of followers, including Khadíja,
'Alí, Abú Bakr, and 'Umar; the Buddha gathered his bhikkus
(monks) around him and began to teach them; the Báb called the group
of eighteen disciples the Letters of the Living; while Bahá'u'lláh
is recorded as having made a declaration of his mission to a small group
of followers in the garden of Ridvan outside Baghdad. It is only at a later
stage that these prophet-founders make a more public declaration of their
mission, by starting to preach in public.
The ministry of the prophet-founder
As they start the public preaching of their ministry, the relationship of the teaching of these prophet-founders of the world religions to the established religion of their time is of considerable interest. It goes without saying that each of these figures appeared against the background of a particular established religious tradition. All of those with whom the prophet-founder was in contact were also from this religious background. This to a large extent pre-determined much of the language, cosmology and mythology used by the prophet-founder. He had to make his message familiar enough to be understandable--and therefore he used the same cosmology and basic vocabulary as the established religion. But, at the same time, he brought a teaching that was sufficiently radical and innovative to cause the emergence of a new religion. Thus he takes the symbols, cosmology and mythology of the old religion and recasts these giving them a new meaning in order to purvey a new message. Therefore, the Buddha uses the language and metaphysical assumptions of Hinduism; both Christ and Muammad launched their teachings from a Judaic base; the teachings of the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh emerge from an Islamic background and used symbols common to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This cloaking of a new message in the garb of the old means that for some time after the advent of the new religion, it is looked upon by outsiders as just a sect or movement within the old religion--its potential to become a new religion only gradually emerging.
This concealment of the full implications of the message of the prophet-founders is furthered by the fact that, during the early period of their ministry, they give mainly ethical and eschatological teachings. More specifically, they do not oppose the teaching of the established religion. This can be seen in the teaching of Christ during his preaching around Galilee during the early part of his ministry. Similarly, the earliest súras of the Qur'án revealed during the Meccan period of Muammad's ministry are on ethical and eschatological themes. During the early ministry of the Báb, there is little indication in his writings of a break with Islam. Bahá'u'lláh's writings of the Baghdad period are principally concerned with ethics, mysticism and explanations of eschatology. During this early period of the ministry of the prophet-founder, there is no indication of any break with the established religion. It seems as if the prophet-founder wishes to break the news of his mission to the people gently, in gradual stages. In the case of the Buddha there are also indications that he only gave out his teaching gradually as he felt the people were ready for it.(10) These last two factors (the use of the symbols and terminology of the previous established religion, and the staged unfoldment of the teaching) makes it probable that each prophet-founder appeared to the people at first to be only a reformer of the previous religion. Thus, for example, if one was a Jew who had chanced upon Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount, one may well have thought that this was a reformer or renewer of Judaism. If one had come across Muammad preaching monotheism in his early ministry in Mecca, one may have assumed that he was promoting the Jewish and Christian religions which were then spread throughout Arabia.
But even in this early period, these prophet-founders are usually critical of the religious professionals of the established religious tradition. They consider these to be the perverters or corrupters of the previous religion. The Buddha was severely critical of the Brahmins of his time, calling them worse than dogs in some respects.(11) Similarly, Jesus inveighs against the scribes and the Pharisees for a whole chapter in Matthew's Gospel calling them hypocrites and corrupters of the Jewish religion.(12) And in the Qur'án, we find criticism of both Jewish and Christian religious leaders.(13) Both the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh are critical of the religious leaders of previous religions whom they state are the main cause of the people turning against the successive prophets of God when they appear.(14)
Then at one particular point in their ministry, these figures make a decisive break with the previous, established religion. They reveal their true nature as not just a reformer of the old religion but a renewer of religion itself. With Christ there were a number of incidents such as his breaking of the Sabbath of the Jewish Law in Jerusalem by curing a man of his lameness. During the second year after his flight to Medina, Muammad suddenly changed the direction in which prayers were said from Jerusalem to the Ka'ba in Mecca.(15) This signalled a definite break with the other monotheists of Medina, the Jewish tribes. The Báb signalled the inauguration of a new dispensation at a conference of his followers at Badasht, at which his leading female disciple appeared unveiled. At about the same time, he announced at his trial in Tabriz that he was the Mahdí whom Muslims were expecting. Bahá'u'lláh made clear to his followers that he was initiating a new religion when he issued a challenge in Edirne (Adrianople) to Azal, who had nominal leadership of the Bábí community, announcing that he was the one foretold by the Báb.
It is of interest to note that this break with the established religion usually occurs fairly late in the mission of the prophet-founder. It seems as though the prophet-founder is building up the spiritual strength of his disciples so that they can sustain the impact of the break with the previous religion. It is following this break with the previous religion that the prophet-founder begins to set out the distinctive laws and rituals of his religion. The later Medinan súras of the Qur'án are, for example, the ones containing the laws of Islam. Bahá'u'lláh's Book of Laws (Kitáb-i-Aqdas) was promulgated in the last, the Akka period of his ministry and this was followed by a series of tablets in which his social teachings were laid out. This process sets the seal on the break with the previous religion.
Most of the prophet-founders have also made a declaration of their mission to the secular and religious leaders of their time: Moses to Pharaoh; the Buddha to his father, King Suddhodana, and to King Bimbisara in addition to numerous Brahmins and gurus; Christ to Pontius Pilate (albeit only implicitly) and to the Jewish religious leaders; Muammad is recorded in some of the histories as having written to the Sasanian monarch of Persia and the Byzantine Emperor; the Báb wrote to Muammad Shah and to the Muslim religious leaders in Iran; Bahá'u'lláh wrote to the Shah of Iran, the Sultan of Turkey as well as several European monarchs, including Queen Victoria and Emperor Napoleon III; he also wrote to Muslim religious leaders in Iran and the Ottoman Empire, and to the Pope.
Also at this stage, each prophet-founder promises the advent of a messianic
figure allied to an eschatological event. For the western religions, the
eschatological event is usually described as the end of the world, the
Day of Judgement. The eschatological figure varies. For Jews, there is
the promise of a Messiah; Christ foretold his own return to the world;
in Islamic tradition, Muammad spoke of the coming of the Mahdí,
accompanied by the return of Jesus. In the eastern religions, the eschatological
event is the end of the age of darkness, the Kali Yuga, and the start of
a golden age. Krishna promises the coming of a future avatar, whenever
there is a "decline in righteousness." Gautama Buddha spoke of the coming
of a future Buddha, the Maitreya. Bahá'u'lláh refers to the
coming of a further "Manifestation of God" in one thousand years or more.
The activities of these prophet-founder figures set off a reaction in the form of opposition to them and their teaching. This opposition can be divided into external and internal forms. The internal opposition arises from within the ranks of the disciples and followers of the prophet-founder. It is an act of betrayal usually motivated by jealousy and envy. The Buddha's own cousin, Devadatta, sought to kill him out of jealousy. The brother of Moses, Aaron, betrayed him while he was away on Mount Sinai receiving the Law, and caused the Golden Calf to be made an idol.(16) Judas Iscariot, one of Christ's chosen twelve disciples, betrayed him to the authorities. When Muammad was in Medina, a group of those who had converted to Islam, and who are known by Muslims as the Munáfiqún (hypocrites), strove hard to undermine his position and betray him. Their leader, 'Abdu'lláh ibn Ubayy, was undoubtedly motivated by envy as he would probably have been the leading figure in Medina had it not been for Muammad's arrival there. A group of three of the Báb's earliest disciples left him and went over to the side of his opponent out of jealousy towards the Báb's leading disciple; Azal, Bahá'u'lláh own half-brother, sought to betray and kill him out of jealousy for his religious leadership which would otherwise have been Azal's.
The external opposition to these prophet-founder figures occurs because, through their teaching, they have challenged the social structure. Those with the greatest vested interest in the maintenance of that structure--the secular rulers and the religious leaders--oppose them. Moses was opposed by Pharaoh; Christ by the Jewish religious leaders who eventually brought in the assistance of the secular Roman authorities that led to Christ's death; the Bhagavad-Gita and Mahabharata describe the great battle that Krishna had to fight in order to restore righteousness; the Buddha and his disciples were subjected to great persecution and misrepresentation;(17) Muammad was opposed by the leading figures in Mecca because his opposition to idol-worship threatened the main source of prosperity for the town; the Báb was opposed by the ulama and the state in Iran who eventually caused his death; while Bahá'u'lláh faced the opposition of the ulama and the governments of both Iran and the Ottoman Empire.
There is often an element of migration involved in the lives of the founders of the great religions or in the history of the religion immediately after their death. This migration being largely caused by the external opposition which has been encountered. The Buddha was in a constant state of migration with his disciples; Moses moved with the Israelites out of Egypt after his clash with Pharaoh; Christ himself migrated to a certain extent but, after the crucifixion, Paul and Peter took the message of Christ to Rome and the Gentile world after the Jews had rejected it; Muammad proceeded to Medina after the opposition of the Meccans; Bahá'u'lláh was sent by the Iranian and Ottoman governments into several successive exiles from Iran finally reaching Akka in Palestine.(18)
It is also of interest to consider the reason that religious leaders have given for rejecting the prophet-founders. The Jewish religious leaders rejected Jesus because he did not fit their idea of what the Messiah would do; they also considered the Law of the Torah to be unalterable. Jewish and Christian religious leaders rejected Muammad because they could not believe that he was a prophet of God; furthermore they did not believe that there would be a further teaching from God. Similarly, Bahá'u'lláh claims to be the promised saviour of all of these religions. This claim has been rejected by Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders because he does not fit their ideas of their promised saviour; they also consider their own religious scriptures to be fixed and unalterable for all time.
There have thus been two common elements in this rejection of the prophet-founders of religion by the religious leaders of the previous religions. Firstly the religious leaders have had a pre-conceived and fixed idea of the promised saviour of the religion, the next prophet to come from God. When the prophet-founder fails to meet this conception, they reject him. Secondly, the religious leaders of each religion have adopted the position that theirs is the last religion from God; their scripture the last word from God. Therefore, no other message from God could possibly come. Thus, when the prophet-founder brings forward a new teaching, they oppose him. The fears of religious leaders for their social position and prestige must also be taken into consideration.
There are a number of other common themes in the lives of the prophets that could be explored. These include the presence of a prominent woman in each religious dispensation and the role that she plays in supporting either the prophet himself or his followers after the prophet's death(19); and the theme of sacrifice--that there is some event usually during the prophet's life that betokens the sacrificing of what is held dear; an act that is seen by his followers as an act of atonement.(20)
The above analysis is not intended to ignore the fact that there were also great differences between the lives of the prophet-founders. Some, for example, appear to have been able to overcome the opposition and ended their lives leading their communities while others were overwhelmed by the opposition and were put to death. Yet, nevertheless, there does appear to be a certain recurrent pattern in the lives of the founders of these religions. The similarities seem to suggest that there were certain pivotal events in the lives of these figures:
Table: Comparative lives of the founders of the religions
|Event precipitating ministry||Enlightenment under Bodhi Tree||The Burning Bush||The Descent of the Dove from Heaven||Vision of the Angel Gabriel||Vision of the Head of the Imám Husayn||Vision of the Maid of Heaven in a dungeon in Tehran|
|Gathering of first disciples||First group of monks||Aaron||The twelve disciples||Khadija, 'Ali, Abu Bakr||The eighteen Letters of the Living||Small group of followers in the Riván Garden|
|Period of solitude and doubt||Meditated over his course of action||Forty days in wilderness||Period of doubt||Two years in the hills of Sulaymaniyya|
|Break with previous
|Breaking of the Sabbath||Change of direction of prayer||Conference of Badasht abolishes Islamic Law||Challenge to Azal|
|Rulers and religious leaders to whom public declaration made||His father, the king, and to many Brahmins||Pharaoh||Pontius Pilate and Jewish religious leaders||Emperors of Persia and Byzantium||Shah of Iran and Iranian religious leaders||Shah of Iran, Sultan of Turkey, Rulers of Europe, the Pope and other religious leaders|
|Promise of a future saviour||Maitreya Buddha||The Messiah||Return of Christ||The Mahdi and the return of Jesus||He whom God shall make manifest||Future Manifestation of God|
|Internal opposition||Devadatta the Buddha's cousin||The making of the Golden Calf||Judas Iscariot||Ibn Ubayy and the Munáfíqun||Group of three disciples||Azal's opposition|
|External opposition||Pharaoh||Jewish religious leaders||Leaders of Mecca||Religious leaders and state in Iran||Religious leaders and state in Iran and Turkey|
|Migration||Wandering with monks||Migration of Israelites out of Egypt||Journeys of Paul and Pete|