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Catastrophe and Armageddon

Catastrophe, Armageddon and Millennium: Some aspects of the Bábí-Bahá’í exegesis of Apocalyptic Symbolism.
Stephen Lambden

First written in the 1990s.

Under revision and expansion

Last updated 17-12-2019

A wide range of sometimes disturbing Abrahamic and related religious texts and traditions have warned humankind of an impending eschatological calamity or catastrophe. Additionally, the sacred books of the world not only predict global catastrophe but also an ensuing millennial world peace. This paper is a preliminary consideration of selected Bábí-Bahá'í doctrines expository of apocalyptic symbolism associated with major Abrahamic religious prophecies. I will endeavour to show that many of the Bahá'í interpretations of end-time catastrophe are best viewed in their evolving historical contexts. A brief consideration will be made of the war of the last days referred to in the canonical Apocalypse, the Book of Revelation, as the battle of Armageddon (Rev. 16:14).

A cursory examination of dimensions of the catastrophe and ensuing millennial peace by the central figures of the Bahá'í religion will be set down. For several decades, some Bahá'ís have been troubled by expectations of concrete global catastrophe. Awareness of the fact that Bábí-Bahá'í sources anticipate numerous "catastrophes" with aspects that have already been outwardly realised or spiritually interpreted is not widespread in the contemporary Bahá'í community. On occasion, both the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh undertook a courageous demythologisation of apocalyptic scenarios anticipated in Biblical and Islamic scripture and tradition. It is the Bahá'í belief that the "catastrophe" or the apocalyptic upheaval of the last days has very largely, been realised in the troubled yet brilliant 20th century. The possibility of further terrible, unforseen catastrophe, however, remains possible if not inevitable.

The Eschatological Catastrophe and ongoing Catastrophies. 

The sacred books of the world predict both global catastrophe and world peace. Bahá'í scripture anticipates, extends, and interprets such prophecies; sometimes literally, sometimes spiritually, and occasionally in both these ways. These writings speak about an imminent catastrophic calamity or "apocalyptic upheaval." They predict the subsequent appearance of universal peace; an imminent secular "lesser peace" (sulh al-akbar; lit., "greater peace") and a future a spiritual world order of Bahá'u'lláh, the "most great peace" (sulh al-a`zam).
In the Bahá'í view, the coming of peace will be gradual, and to some extent realised in the 20th century. In the light of the Bahá'í teachings it is possible to argue convincingly that with the end of the cold war and the increasing trend towards disarmament, international co-operation, and globalisation that the "lesser peace" has all but been realised. Yet, this secular, politically oriented "lesser peace" is not comparable to that peace which is spiritually rooted; the future truly millennial peace which is more than a virtual cessation of many intractable global conflicts.
Realistic about the establishment of global, political peace, 'Abdu'l-Bahá predicted multi-national disarmament. The Montreal Star of 11 September 1912 reported that he had stated that nations would be forced into peace in the 20th century. Humanity would sicken over the cost of warmongering. [1] Prior to the unfoldment of that secular disarmament which is the "lesser peace," varieties of "calamity" or "catastrophe" are clearly anticipated in Bábí-Bahá'í scripture. It is clear, however, that Bahá'í scripture does not expect or support a literal apocalyptic collapse of the cosmos or an absolute "end of the world".[2] Scriptural writings that appear to suggest this possibility are not interpreted literally.
It is the Bahá'í position that the appearance of a new religion is itself a revolutionary, a "catastrophic" religio-political event; a "Day of the Lord" and "Day of Judgement" which causes the "limbs of mankind to quake."[3] It precipitates inner and ultimately outer change; an end to existing "global disorder" through the appearance, in the language of the apocalypse, of "a new heaven and a new earth." The advent of a new religion involves new, revolutionary ways of thought and action. The religion which culminates in "peace" comes also as a civilisation changing "sword," "woe" or "catastrophe."[4]
The nature of the diverse eschatological catastrophes predicted in the sacred books of the world are too numerous and complex to be detailed here; including, for example, the disruption of the cosmos, earthquakes, eclipses, wars, famine, and pestilence, and so on. Neither can their multifaceted Bábí-Bahá'í interpretations be set down in detail. The following few notes attempt to summarise some key Abrahamic religious predictions of eschatological "catastrophe."

  • 1. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, 'Abdu'l-Bahá in Canada (Montreal: NSA of the Bahá'ís of Canada, 1962) 34-35.
  • 2. Cf. Letter of Shoghi Effendi dated July 5 1947 cited in H. Hornby (comp.) Lights of Guidance (New Delhi: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 3rd ed., 1994) Para. 437.
  • 3. Bahá'u'lláh, Ishráqát in Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh (Haifa: Bahá'í World Centre, 1978) 58/ trans. 118.
  • 4. In explaining the words "the second woe is past; and behold the third woe cometh quickly" (Rev. 11:14), 'Abdu'l-Bahá cited Ezekiel 2:3 and reckoned as "woes" the three successive religions of Muhammad (Islam), the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh (see Some Answered Questions [Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1981] chapter XI on Rev 11:14).

Hebrew Bible and the New Testament

An apocalyptic "end" or cosmic catastrophe is predicted or presupposed in numerous texts within
the Hebrew Bible. It is one of the senses of the (eschatological) expression "Day of the Lord [YHWH  – Yahweh]." The prophet Zephaniah (fl. late 7th cent. BCE) boldly proclaimed that YHWH would destroy "all the inhabitants of the earth" on the "Day of his wrath" (see Zeph. 1:7ff). Isaiah had it that the whole world would be punished for its evil on the "Day of the Lord" (Isa. 13:6f). A horrendous catastrophe is envisaged in Zech 13:8-9 which reads,

In the whole land, says the Lord, two thirds shall be cut off and perish, and one third shall be left alive. And I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested.They will call on my name, and I will answer them. I will say, "They are my people"; and I will say, "The Lord is my God."[5]

According to Matthew's Gospel, Jesus' disciples asked him, "What will be the sign of your [Jesus'] coming and of the end of the world."[6] The Greek here was only loosely and inadequately translated in the 1611 Authorised Version as "the end of the world." More recent Christian translations such as the revised standard version have "close [completion] of the age" or something similar. This is not to say, however, that a multitude of apocalyptic predictions presupposing a collapse of the cosmos and an end to existing civilisation do not exist in the New Testament (e.g. in the Apocalypse) and elsewhere in the Bible. These predictions are generally understood by Bahá'ís to refers to the "end" (= completion) or fulfilment of an era or religious cycle.

  • 5. 'Abdu'l-Bahá is reported to have interpreted this text referring to the fact that a "great disturbance," a "great catastrophe" or terrible "calamity" will happen in the world after the 1335 day [= year] period referred to in Daniel 12:12 have passed (cf. Ruth White, 'Abdu'l-Baha and the Promised Age. J. J. Little and Ives 1927 174-5.
  • 6. Authorised Version [=King James version]; Gk. = sunteleias tou aionos, Matt 24:3 + synoptic parallels.

Such apocalyptic events as the darkening of the "sun" and the "moon" (Mk. 13:24b=Matt 24:29; cf. Lk. 21:25), the qur'anic reference to the "conjoining of the sun and the moon" (Q. 75:9) or according to Islamic traditions "the rising of the sun in the west" are not interpreted wholly literally in Bábí-Bahá'í scriptural texts. The apocalyptic implications of such words of Jesus as "heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away" (Mk. 13:31 = Matt. 24:35 = Lk. 21:33) are likewise not interpreted literally in Bahá'í sacred writings.


The Qur’án & Islamic Traditions (Hadíth /akhbar).

The central importance of Muslim belief in the twin concepts of "God and the Last Day" (Alláh wa'-l yawm al-akhir[ah]) is constantly enunciated (20+ times) in the Qur'án.[7] There are several references to an eschatological "calamity" in this holy book (revealed piecemeal between c. 610 and 632 CE). One of the brief (11 verse) Meccan súras (Q. 101 cf. 13:31; 69:4) is entitled al-Qár'ia, which has been variously translated, "the striking" (Sale); "the smiting" (Rodwell); "the calamity" (Pickthall) and "the clatterer" (Arberry); the word has connotations of "sudden misfortune" and eschatological judgement.[8] In the Qur'ánic "Súra of the Resurrection" (al-qiyáma, Q. 75:24-5) we read, "Upon that day faces shall be radiant gazing upon their Lord; and upon that day faces shall be scowling, thou mightest think the Calamity (fáqirah) has been wreaked on them." [9] Another verse contains an important reference to the támmah or "great catastrophe" as Arberry rendered it,

Then, when the Great Catastrophe (támmah) comes upon that day when man shall remember what he has striven... (79:34). [10]

  • 7. See Hanna Kassis, A Concordance of the Qur'an (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1983), 130ff.
  • 8. Ian Netton, A Popular Dictionary of Islam (London: Curzon Press, 1992) 203.
  • 9. Trans. A. J. Arberry, The Koran Interpreted (Oxford: Oxford University, 1983), 619.
  • 10. In due course we shall see that certain of Bahá'u'lláh's references to the "catastrophe" utilise this Qur'ánic hapax legomenon (unique term).

Both Sunní and Shí`í sources contain material bearing upon end-time catastrophe. In Muhammad Báqir Majlísí's Bihar al-anwár ("Seas of Lights"; a massive Shí`í encyclopaedia quoted quite frequently by both the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh) there exists a section based upon texts of the Qur'án, commentary and various traditions of the Twelver Imáms entitled, "The blowing into the Trumpet and the destruction of the world (faná' al-dunyá) (cf. Q. 55:26 below) and that every soul shall taste death." [11]
The theme of the "destruction of the world" (faná' al-dunyá) is closely related to the exegesis of Qur'án 55:26:

All that dwells on earth shall perish (fání cf. faná'), yet still abides (yabqa) the Face of thy Lord (wajh rabbika), possessed of Majesty and Glory (dhu'l-jalál wa'l-ikrám).

  • 11. dhá'iq al-mawt Q. x 3 = 3:185[2]; 21:35[36]; 29:57.

 Babi and Bahá’í interpretations

Biblical and Qur'ánic (Arabic) "catastrophe" terminology is utilised, extended, and interpreted in Bábí-Bahá'í scripture. As I will show interpretations offered in Bahá'í texts include the conference of Badasht, the religion of the Báb, Bahá'u'lláh's proclamation to the kings and rulers of his time, and the two world wars of the 20th century.
The "catastrophe" predicted in the "Súra of the Terror" (Q. 56) and elsewhere, for example, was understood to be the revolutionary 1848 Bábí conference of Badasht at which the Báb's claim to be the promised Qá'im (messianic ariser) was announced and the Islámic law formally abrogated. This was tantamount to an apocalyptic "catastrophe." 'Abdu'l-Bahá in his Tadhkirat al-Vafa'. Memorials of the Faithful mentions Bahá'u'lláh's suggestion that the Súra al-wáqi'ah ("the Terror", "Inevitable") be read at
this time. [12] This súrah begins,

When al-wáqi'ah ("the Terror") descends... abasing, exalting, when the earth shall be rocked and the mountains crumbled, and become a dust scattered, and you shall be in three bands – Companions of the Right (O Companions of the Right!), Companions of the Left (O Companions of the Left!) and the Outstrippers (sábiqún) those are they brought nigh the Throne, in the Gardens of Delight. (Q. 56, trans. Arberry),

Shoghi Effendi wrote in his 1944 God Passes By, "On that memorable day the 'Bugle' mentioned in the Qur'án was sounded (nuqrih-' náqúr), the 'stunning trumpet blast' was loudly raised (nafkhih-'súr), and the 'Catastrophe' (támmih-' kubrá) came to pass." [13]

In his Lawh-i Ishráqát, Bahá'u'lláh refers to the Báb as "the Harbinger of His Great Revelation which hath caused the limbs of all mankind (faqrá's al-umam) to quake." [14] The religion of the Báb was a revolutionary phenomenon; a kind of "catastrophe" preparatory to the emergence of the Bahá'í Faith. A cursory examination of the brief but turbulent history of the Bábí religion bears this out.

There are many texts within the writings of the central figures of the Bahá'í religion and its authoritative and secondary interpreters that in one way or another bear upon 19th and 20th century "catastrophe[s]." The relevant passages are best viewed chronologically and in historical context – a task that can only be summarily attempted or sketched here.

  • 12. Memorials of the Faithful (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1975) 201.
  • 13. God Passes By (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1970) p. 33; Per. trans. Mavaddat, p. 96.
  • 14. R-'-D VII = "tremble!"; Majmu'a az alwáh-i jamál-i aqdas-i abhá' (Cairo: 1338/ [1919-] 1920, rep. Wilmette, 137BE/1980) 580; Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh 102.

The writings of Bahá’u’lláh
A fairly large number of Bahá'u'lláh's writings bear directly or indirectly upon the theme of latter day "catastrophe". It is stated that various of his revelatory "Tablets" (alwáh) as expressions of the creative Word are tantamount encapsulations of end-time, catastrophic "trumpet blasts" precipitating revolutionary "terror" and calamitous change. Certain of his major Tablets to the Kings, for example, were accorded suggestive qur'ánic rooted titles by Bahá'u'lláh himself. In a Tablet to Nabíl [-i Zarandi?], which at one point dwells on the theme of his revelations in the light of end-time "judgement" or "catastrophe", he states that,

Each one of them [the "Tablets to the Kings"] hath been designated by a special name. The first hath been named "The Rumbling [Shout]" [al-Sáyha, Q. 54:31... etc], the second "The [Catastrophic] Blow" [al-Qári'a, Q. 101] the third "The Inevitable [Calamity]" [al-Háqqah, Q. 69], the fourth, "The Plain" [al-Sáhirah, Q. 79:14], the fifth "The Catastrophe" [al-Támmah, Q. 79:34] and the others, "The Stunning Trumpet Blast," [al-Sákhkhah, Q. 80:33] "The Near Event," [al-zulfah, Q. 67:27] "The Great Terror," [alfaza' al-akbar, Q. 21:103] "The Trumpet," [al-Súr, Q. 6:73...] "The Bugle," [al-Náqúr, Q. 74:8] and their like...[15]

  • 15. Bahá'u'lláh, Iqtidárát va chand lawh-i dígár (n.p. [Bombay] 1310/1892-3) 298, trans. Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is Come (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1980) 46, cf. God Passes By 212 + Per. trans. Mavaddat 425). I have supplied the transliteration and the qur'ánic references. Compare with the tablets as arranged by Bahá'u'lláh in his Súrat al-haykal, (1) Tablet to the Pope [Pius IX]; 2) Tablet to Napoleon III [2nd Tablet]; 3) = Tablet to the Czar of Russia; 4) = Tablet to Queen Victoria; 5) Tablet to Násir al-Dín Sháh; 6) Súrat al-Rá'is, etc. Later in this same tablet, Bahá'u'lláh addresses Nabíl informing him that  it is his eschatological "Announcement (al-nidá)" which has caused the heavens to be "cleft asunder", the "mountains" crushed to dust and the "Great Terror" (al-faza' al-akbar, Q. 21:103) been made manifest (see Iqtidarat 300).