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The Bābī-Baha’i Demythologization of Shī`ī messianism




The Bābī-Baha’i Demythologization of Shī`ī messianism: On the question of the reality of the twelfth Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, the  alleged son of  the 11th Imam, Ḥasan al-`Askarī   (d. 260/874) and Narjis Khanum.

Stephen Lambden UCMerced


On the question of the reality of the twelfth Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, the  alleged son of  the 11th Imam, Ḥasan al-Askarī   (d. 260/874) and Narjis Khanum.

Stephen N. Lambden 


   The writings of the Bāb and Bahā'-Allāh are full of messianic and eschatological proclamations, as well as intimations of the non-literal realization of apocalyptic predictions. The eschatology of the Bāb and Bahā'-Allāh is multi-faceted. It exhibits some evolution over a fifty, eighty or 110 years period, extending through the lifetimes of the Bāb, Bahā'-Allāh, Abd al-Baha and Shoghi Effendi (1844-1957). A good example of the complex manner in which Bābī-Bahā’ī messianism has evolved is the question of the existence of the youthful son of the the eleventh Imam Ḥasan al-Askarī (d. Samarra c. 260/874) and his supposed concubine [wife] variously named Saqīl, Sayqal or Narjis [Narcissus] Khatun. She is sometimes reckoned a Byzantine princess, and a descendant of Simon Peter, the apostle of Jesus. According to Shī`ī tradition this son is the real twelfth Imam who disappeared into occultation (ghaybat-i sughra) as a child sometime in the later 1260s. For the orthodox twelver Shī``a he is to appear from heaven at the termination of the ghaybat-i kubra ("Greatest Occultation)  in eschatological times as the expected Qā’im.

        Named Muhammad [al-Mahdī, al-Qā’im] the reality and imminent parousia of this twelfth Imam was championed by the Bāb at the outset of his mission. In his QA., Sūrat al-mulk (1:1. 8a) and T.Kawthar (1262) the Bāb presupposed the reality of the occulted twelfth Imam, even citing testimonies of those who had visioned him during periods of his occultation (T. Kawthar,78ff)

        Twenty or so years later Bahā'-Allāh wrote his Jawāhir al-asrār (The Jewels of the Mysteries, c. 1277 /1860-1) in respose to a number of questions about the expected the Mahdī posed by Sayyid Yūsuf-i Sidihī [Iṣfahānī], a one time resident of Karbalā’ (Zarandī, Tarīkh mss. AQA 3:20). Therein Bahā'-Allāh explains that Ḥasan al-Askarī is an archetypal, symbolic figure, the advent of whose "son" was expected in every religious cycle (Jawahir, XXX). In arguing that the Bāb fulfilled the messianic prophecies contained in the Q. and traditions about the expected Mahdī Bahā'-Allāh gave the traditions relating to the twelfth Imam a spiritual interpretation. All religions he stated, have it that the messiah Bāb is Muhammad the son of Ḥasan al-Askarī is come from the Jābulqā’ of "the power of God" (qudrat Allāh) and Jābulsā’ of the "Mercy of God" (raḥmat Allāh, see AQA 3:41ff). The Bāb came from these allusive realms, from these mysterious "cities" where Shī`ī tradition locates the hidden messianic imam.  The hidden imam is essentially a symbolic figure. He will also be manifested as the Bābī messiah figure man yuẓhiru Allāh (AQA 3:43).

        The twin cosmic realms of Jābulqā’ and Jābulsā Bahā'-Allāh here argues in the Jawahir , are not concrete celestial localities but symbolic expressions suggestive of aspects of the divine Power and Mercy.  In a Tablet to Varqā Bahā'-Allāh later spoke of the fanciful nature of these two spheres, referring to the "Jābulqā of idle fancy (mawhūm) and the "Jābulsā of mere speculation (ẓunūn)" which led Muslim traditionalists (ahl-i sunna) to decree the martyrdom of the Bāb (Ma'idih 4:141).

        Subsequently, both Bahā'-Allāh and `Abd al-Baha explicitly denied the real existence of the messianic twelfth Imam. In, for example,  a Persian Tablet (to ??) `Abd al-Baha' has written in response to a question about this matter as follows:

You have sought an explanation regarding the [Shī`ī messianic] twelfth Imam. As  something conceived [imagined]  (taṣawwūr) as having its basis (aṣl) in the corporeal world of bodily existence (dar `ālam-i jism-i wujūd) this [figure] is non-existent  (na-dashtih). Nay rather, [it was the case that] some of the mighty ones (akābir) among the Shī`ī [Muslims]  at that [earlier] time (dar an zamān) were categorical respecting the preservation [of the faith] of the weak ones  among the people and they thus upheld the existence of that person [the 12th Imam] in the realm of the unseen (ḥayyiz-i ghayb)...                  (cited Ghadimi, Sayyid-i rusul, [1988], 210).


A brother of Imām Ḥasan al-Askarī came to be known among the Shī`a as Ja`far the al-kadhdhāb ("Liar") on account of his denial of the real existence of his brother’s allegedly occulted son, the twelfth Imam. This Ja`far was referred to by both  Bahā'-Allāh and `Abd al-Baha as Ja`far the Truthful (Ma'idih 8:102; X:???). This on account of their own denial of his real existence. In a lengthy 1293/1876-7 Persian Tablet of Bahā'-Allāh it is stated that had it not been for the dishonesty of the leading Shī`ī ulamā’ regarding the occulted son of Ḥasan al-Askarī, "the Bāb, the Most transcendent Lord (rabb-i`alā) would not have suffered martyrdom" (Ma'idih 7:185f).

        Bābī-Bahā’ī doctrine thus ranges from a literalistic stand regarding the ethereal figure of the twelfth Imam by the Bab, to an outright denial of his existence by Bahā'-Allāh and Abd al-Baha. The demythologization of this problematic messianic figure is complete although this radical demythologization is not often voiced by modern Baha’is (cf. SE*, GPB:xx; Ghadimi, 1988:206f).

        As far as I am aware this issue was first raised by the British anti-Baha'i  Protestant missionary John Richard Richards (b.       d. [Wales] 198?) D. D. (one time Bishop of St. David's [Wales]) in his 1932 publication The Religion of the Baha'is  ( SPCK: London, 1932 / New York : Macmillan, 1934)