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Mirza Yahya Nuri (c.1830-1912) - Abstract

Mirza Yahya Nuri (c.1830-1912)

The position of Mirza Yahya Nuri Subh-i Azal (c.1830-1912): some aspects of Azali anti-Baha'i  polemic and Baha'i Apologetics.  

Stephen Lambden  (Univ. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK)


This abstract was written in the mid 1990s and is now under revision May 2015.

We may first make a very basic historical stament. Mīrzā Yaḥyā, known as  Ṣubḥ-e Azal (The Morn of Eternity) was born in Tehran around 1830-31 and died as exile on April 29, 1912, in Famagusta, Cyprus. He was a younger half-brother of Bahā-Allāh, the founder of the Bahāʾī faith in the middle of the nineteenth century. The exact nature of the position of Mirza Yahya Nuri, Subh-i Azal following the martyrdom of the Bab on July 9th 1850, has long been a subject of Baha'i-Azali debate. The Bab wrote a number of Tablets to Mirza Yahya and Baha'-Allah as well as an Arabic Wasiyyat- nama (Will and Testament) in which (among other things) Yahya's position and future role were indicated. From 1849/50 Yahya was given elevated titles and a key future role in the religion of the Bab. The nature of this role has been variously understood and widely misrepresented so as to discredit the purpose and claims of Baha'-Allah.  The authenticity of this Will of the Bab has been unnecessarily questioned. It has been little studied even thought Baha'-Allah quite frequently referred to or alluded to it.

No academically informed biography of Mirza Yahya has to date been written. His numerous Persian and Arabic writings have hardly been studied at all. The quasi-Babi musings and anti-Baha'i sentiments of Yahya and his Azali supporters are expressed in a multitude of Persian and Arabic writings and a few texts written in western languages. Directly or indirectly they continue to exert a sometimes distortive influence upon the understanding of the Babi and Baha'i religions. 
Towards the end of his mission the Bab wrote to Baha'-Allah (1817-1892)  (through Mirza Yahya referring to him by means of the *abjad* value of his name Husayn `Ali = 238)  instructing him to protect and take care of his half-brother. This is exactly what Baha'-Allah did for more than a decade as he himself states in his  Lawh-i Sarraj  - in fact for no less than twenty years,  1846- 1866 (?). Prior to his semi-secret Ridwan declaration (April 22-May 3 1863) and complete break with Yahya during the mid-Adrianople period ("The Most Great Separation" c. 1865/6), Baha'-Allah basically acted as a leading Babi. To quote Shoghi Effendi he "appeared in the guise of, and continued to labor as, one of the foremost disciples of the Báb" (God Passes By, 128). This initial support of Yahya is reflected in such early Tablets as the probably pre-Kurdistan Lawh-i kull al-ta`am ("Tablet of all Food" c. 1270 = late 1853/54), Surat al-kifayya ("The Sura of the Sufficiency" 1854/57??) and Tafsir-i Hu [Huwa, "He is"] (Commentary on the "He is") . It is somewhat more explicitly stated in later Tablets, including the Surat al-haykal ("The Sura of the Temple" c. 1873?) where we read of one upon whom was spkinkled a "dewdrop" from the "Fathomless Deep of the Ocean of Knowledge" and who was elevated to such an extent that "all [Babis] rose up in praise of him [Yahya]".
Baha'-Allah protected Yahya until he was aged about   thirty-five years of age and even revealed Tablets which were dispatched under his name. Despite the educative and loving-care extended by Baha'-Allah to Yahya, his younger half-brother ultimately attempted to subvert his claimed religious mission which was gradually announced between 1863 and 1866 (and more openly therefafter). Various sources have it that in the ealy 1850s, Yahya had pronounced the death sentence upon the prominent Babi Mirza Assad-Allah Khu'i entitled Dayyan ("the Judge") by the Bab and later attempted to have Baha'-Allah poisoned to death.  In view of his half-brother's politically subversive activities and murderous attempts to quosh Babi challenges to his inadequate leadership role reflected in such writings as his early (?) Kitab al-wahid (early 1850s?) and al-Mustayqiz ("Sleeper Awakened", c.1854/5), it is astonishing that Baha'-Allah maintained a `noble silence', or `messianic secret' for so long (1850 -> 1863/6). 
According to Baha'i sources it was the corruption of Yahya by Sayyid Muammmad Isfahani (d. 1872) considered by Baha'is the Antichrist of the Babi dispensation, which led him to his elevated claims, hubristic self-deification and allegedly ungodly ways.
It was ultimately during the mid-1860s that Baha'-Allah made a complete break with Yahya and began to proclaim his own divine mission more openly to the Babis and to all mankind. This break was expressed scripturally with the revelation of one of the several Tablets entitled  Sÿrat al-amr ("The Sura of the Command"). Hundreds, if not thousands of the Tablets of Baha'-Allah of the Adrianople period (1863-8) counter the contentions of the supporters of Mirza Yahya, Sub-i Azal (= early Azali Babism) e.g. the Lawh-i Sarraj (c. 1867) and Kitab-i Badi` ("The Wondrous Book" 1867).
Anti-Baha'i Azali polemic has long directly or indirectly informed modern orientalist scholarship; including the writings of E.G. Browne (d. 1926) and of A.L.M. Nicholas (d. 1939) who, in 1933, wrote his brief quasi-Azali Qui est le Successeur du Bab. This influence is also marked in the anti-Baha'i writings of Christian opponents of the Baha'i Faith. Without adequate consultation of primary sources Christian missionary and other anti-Baha'i writers have repeated Azali contentions and misrepresented the relationship between Baha'-Allah (1817-1892) and his younger half-brother. An example of this is to be found in the Presbyterian missionary William Miller's The Baha'i Faith: Its History and Teachings (South Pasadina: William Carey Library, 1974) which makes much use of materials supplied by Jelal Azal (d. 1971), an anti-Baha'i grandson of Mirza Yahya.

In this paper these and related doctrinal issues will be examined with a view to clarifying the Baha'i viewpoint and exposing the inadequacy of aspects of neo-Azali anti-Baha'i polemic.