THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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2 posts categorized "Sacred texts"

29 October 2019

The Star Tablet of the Bab

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A second post by our guest contributor the Baha'i scholar Dr. Moojan Momen celebrates the bicentenary of the birth of the Bab with an account of one of our most important manuscripts, the Star Tablet written in his own hand.

Today—29 October 2019—Baha’is around the world are commemorating the bicentenary of the birth of the Bab. He was the first of two figures whom Baha’is regard as the founders of their faith. The Bab was the forerunner, preparing people for the appearance of Baha’u’llah, whose teachings Baha’is follow.

The British Library holds one of the world’s best collections of Babi and Baha’i manuscripts. Among the most important of these is one in the handwriting of the Bab himself. It is in the shape of a five-pointed star, called a haykal or temple, because it is representative of the head, two arms and two legs of the human form. However, to appreciate this manuscript, it is necessary to understand something of its context.

The Babs star tablet.bl.uk
The Haykal, the Star Tablet of the Bab (BL Or 6887). Public Domain


The Bab

The Bab first announced his mission in 1844 in the city of Shiraz in Iran. During a brief, six-year ministry, he stirred up a great deal of controversy and consternation—especially among the religious leaders of Iran—with his claims and the writings he produced in support of these. For most of the years up to his public execution in 1850, the Bab was under house arrest or in prison, while thousands of his followers were also killed.

It was not just that the Bab’s claim to be the Twelfth Imam or Imam Mahdi, the messianic figure expected by the Shi`i Muslims of Iran, was highly audacious. But, just as Jesus had refrained from conforming to the expectations of the Jews for a military messiah who would lead them to victory over the Romans and establish the dominion of their people, the Bab did not comply with the expectation of Shi`i Muslims that the Twelfth Imam would lead them to a great victory over their enemies and would establish their religion throughout the world. Instead, the Bab interpreted the Traditions (hadīth) that led to these expectations in a spiritual sense and proclaimed that his words were Divine Revelation and he was the inaugurator of a new religious dispensation superseding Islam.

Shrinebab-terraces-night
The Shrine of the Bab and the terraces above and below it at night. Copyright © Bahá'í International Community


The Creation and Significance of the Haykal

In several of his works, the Bab gives instructions for the writing of a haykal, the pentagram or five-pointed star. In the Persian Bayan he states that the five lines that make up the frame of the pentagram create six chambers.PentogramIn the Persian and Arabic alphabet, each letter has a numerical value and this fact was used a great deal by the Bab. Five is the numerical equivalent of the letter H and six the numerical equivalent of the letter W. Together they represent the word Huwa which means “He” and is a common way of referring to God in Islamic mystical literature.[1] The word “Bab” is also equivalent to 5 (B=2, A=1, B=2). The five lines are the outer or manifest and the six chambers created are the inner or hidden. Thus the Bab (= 5) is the outer appearance or Manifestation of the Unseen and Unknowable Divinity (Huwa). In Babi and Baha’i scripture, the Bab is called a Manifestation of God, which should be understood as the Manifestation of the Names and Attributes of God (not that he is an incarnation of God). Indeed, for Baha’is, the prophet-founders of all of the religions have an equal station as Manifestations of God.

The Bab specifies that the pentagram should be carried by men about their person. For women, he gives a different design of six concentric circles, thus forming five spaces in which his verses should be written. Thus the same pattern of five and six also are created in this way. This could be seen as a symbol of the fact that women and men are equal but different.[2] The haykal (temple) represents the temple of a human being, the Perfect Man, and the circle represents the Sun of Truth—both of these representing the Manifestation of God, the Bab.

Daira
Dā’ira
(Circle), drawn according to the instructions given by the Bab. From Qismatī az Alvāḥ-i Khaṭṭ-i Nuqṭah-ʼi Ūlā va Āqā Sayyid Ḥusayn Yazdī ([Tehran?]: n.pub., n.d.), p. 11. Image Courtesy of the Afnan Library

The wearing of amulets containing passages of the Qur’an as a protective talisman is a common custom among Muslims, usually believed to bring good luck or to give protection. The Bab did not prohibit such practices but rather wanted to educate his followers gradually away from them. He saw their function more as a spiritual protection rather than a physical one. He wanted to direct the thoughts of his followers towards their symbolic meaning, towards God and the Manifestation of God, who guides humanity. In the Persian Bayan, the Bab states that the six chambers within the pentagram and the five partitions made by the six circles in the dā’ira should be filled with verses from his writings, but he leaves the creator of the pentagram free to choose which writings to place there. The important point that the Bab makes in this passage, however, is that the purpose of this is not to achieve some magical effect but rather that what is written on the paper should appear in the soul of that person.[3] In other words that they should become the embodiment of the Divine attributes contained in the passages from his writings. And so, men are called the “possessors of the pentagram (haykals)” and women are called the “possessors of the circle (dā’ira)”, not just because that is what each carries but because the Manifestation of the Names and Attributes of God is enshrined within the heart of each individual.[4] Baha’u’llah was later to put this more succinctly thus (Arabic Hidden Words, no. 13):

Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.

The second important point that the Bab makes in this passage is that his intention in asking his followers to carry these pentagrams and circles is that by having their attention constantly turned towards God, his followers will, in the day when the next Manifestation of God appears, immediately turn to him.

The British Library haykal of the Bab

The haykal which the British Library holds (Or 6887) is on a large sheet of pale pink paper (27.5cm x 40.5cm) in the exquisitely beautiful and carefully written handwriting of the Bab. Although the words are written very small—such that a magnifying glass is necessary to read it—almost every word is clearly legible and elegantly formed. There is no indication of the person for whom this haykal was written. It is possible to speculate that it was written towards the end of the Bab’s life because it is similar in wording to such works as the Kitāb al-Asmāʼ and the Panj Sha’n, which were written while the Bab was imprisoned in isolated fortresses in the northwest of Iran in the last three years of his life.

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Close-up of the Haykal of the Bab at twice magnification showing the detail of his writing (BL Or 6887). Public Domain

In many religions, there is a tradition of repetitive chanting of short significant phrases; for example dhikr in Sufism, hesychasm in Orthodox Christianity and mantras in Hinduism and Buddhism. This haykal of the Bab is similar in that it comprises repetitions of short rhymed and rhythmical sentences. As with many other writings of the Bab, it is clear that the words are intended to be chanted out loud and experienced as much as understood. The performative aspect is at least as important as the intellectual. The performative nature of the Bab’s own composition of such works and the effect it had on others can be gleaned from an incident that is recorded about him. This occurred in Isfahan in the house of the Imam-Jum‘ih (the leader of Friday prayers), one of the religious dignitaries of the city, which at that time was the foremost centre for religious studies in Iran. The Bab was accommodated in this house for the first period of his stay in Isfahan and many of the clerics and religious students in the city would come in the afternoons and evenings to hear him speak and to ask him questions. When asked to reveal a commentary on the Sūrat al-ʻAṣr (Qurʻan 103), the Bab began to chant and:

They seemed as if bewitched by the magic of His voice. Instinctively they started to their feet and, together with the Imám-Jum’ih, reverently kissed the hem of His garment. Mullá Muhammad-Taqíy-i-Haratí, an eminent mujtahid, broke out into a sudden expression of exultation and praise. “Peerless and unique,” he exclaimed, “as are the words which have streamed from this pen, to be able to reveal, within so short a time and in so legible a writing, so great a number of verses as to equal a fourth, nay a third, of the Qur’án, is in itself an achievement such as no mortal, without the intervention of God, could hope to perform.” (The Dawn-Breakers, (ed. and trans. Shoghi Effendi), p. 202

The content of the haykal may be described as a paean of praise to God. The words consist of repeated rhymed and rhythmic sentences, such as:

  • All the kingdoms of the heavens and the earth and whatsoever lieth between them are God’s, and His power is supreme over all things.
  • Unto God belong the kingdoms of the heavens and the earth and whatsoever lieth between them, and He, in truth, is potent over all things.
  • Nothing whatsoever can escape His knowledge.
  • Unto God belong the kingdoms of the heavens and the earth and whatsoever lieth between them, and He, in truth, hath knowledge of all things.
  • Nothing whatsoever in the whole of creation can thwart His Purpose.
  • He calleth into being whatsoever He willeth at His behest.

Given what has been said above about the Bab’s stated intention that these haykals be a constant reminder to his followers about the need for them to watch attentively for the coming of “Him whom God shall make manifest” and to obey him when he comes, we can read the Words “On that Day” as meaning “On the Day of the coming of ‘Him whom God shall make manifest’”. In addition, given that the most manifest aspect of God is the Manifestation of God (the founder-prophets of the major religions), the words “the Kingdom [or sovereignty or dominion, mulk] shall be God’s, the Incomparable, the Most Manifest" also points to “Him whom God shall make manifest”, the next of these Manifestations of God to come after the Bab. And so this key sentence that frames all the other sentences in this haykal can be considered to say: “On the Day of the coming of Him whom God shall make manifest, sovereignty shall belong to him.”[5] Baha’u’llah claimed, and Baha’is believe that, “He whom God shall make manifest” is Baha’u’llah. For example, Baha’u’llah wrote in the Kitab-i Aqdas (ʻthe Most Holy Bookʼ):

O people of the Bayan [followers of the Bab]! Fear ye the Most Merciful and consider what He [the Bab] hath revealed in another passage. He said: “The Qiblih [direction of prayer] is indeed He Whom God will make manifest; whenever He moveth, it moveth, until He shall come to rest.” Thus was it set down by the Supreme Ordainer when He desired to make mention of this Most Great Beauty [i.e. Baha’u’llah himself].

Moojan Momen, Independent Scholar
 ccownwork


Further reading

Peter Smith, “An introduction to the Baha’i Faith” in British Library, Discovering Sacred Texts
Moojan Momen, “Baha'i sacred texts,” in British Library, Discovering Sacred Texts
––––, “Central figures of the Baha'i Faith,” in British Library, Discovering Sacred Texts
––––, “Marking the bicentenary of the birth of the Bāb

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[1] Persian Bayan, vahid 4, chapter 5.
[2] To be more precise, the Bab says that each circle is a unity (vāhid, numerologically equivalent to 19) and so the five circles are equivalent to lillāh (for God, numerologically equivalent to 95). Thus both the pentagram (Huwa) and the circle (lillāh) are pointers to God.
[3] Persian Bayan, vahid 4, chapter 5.
[4] Nader Saiedi, Gate of the Heart ([Waterloo, Ont]: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2008), pp. 329-330.
[5] I am grateful to Dr Omid Ghaemmaghami for his suggestion regarding this point and for his assistance with the provisional translation of these passages.

24 September 2019

Marking the bicentenary of the birth of the Bāb

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Today's post coincides with the launch of  the British Library's new learning resource Discovering Sacred Texts  and exhibition of Sacred highlights in the British Library’s permanent Treasures Gallery. Our guest writer is the Baha'i scholar Dr. Moojan Momen who writes about the three unique works of the Bāb and Bahā’u’llāh, the twin founders of the Baha'i Faith which are on display for the first time.

Section of teh Bab's Star Tablet, Or 6887
A section of a tablet hand written by the Bāb in the form of a five pointed star (BL Or 6887). Public Domain

October 2019 marks 200 years since the birth of Sayyid ‘Alī Muḥammad Shīrāzī (1819-1850), known as the Bāb (the Gate), one of the two founders of the Baha'i Faith. A merchant from Shiraz, Iran, the Bāb founded his own distinctive religious movement as well as preparing his followers for the coming of  “Him whom God shall make manifest,” Bahā’u’llāh (1817-1892). Both the Bāb and Bahā’u’llāh are considered by Baha'is as Manifestations of God, intermediaries between God and humanity, who reveal God’s will for the age in which they come. Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Moses, Zoroaster, Krishna and the Buddha are also considered by Baha'is as Manifestations.

Western responses to the Bāb

Accounts of the life of the Bāb and the brutal treatment meted out to his followers, made a profound impression both in Iran and further afield, especially in the West, where many thought the story of the Bāb reminiscent of that of Christ. Gobineau’s Religions et Philosophies dans l’Asie Centrale (1865) was the most influential volume in carrying the story to Western minds. The poet Matthew Arnold wrote in 1871 that “most people in England have a least heard the name” of the Bāb,[1] an indication of how deeply his fame had penetrated into far-off societies. An ongoing survey has discovered that almost 1,400 articles about the Bāb movement appeared in the Western press between 1845 and 1859. With his books such as A Year Among the Persians (1893), Cambridge orientalist Edward G. Browne did much to familiarise readers with the Bāb’s “gentleness and patience, the cruel fate which had overtaken him, and the unflinching courage wherewith he and his followers, from the greatest to the least, had endured the merciless torments inflicted upon them by their enemies.”[2]

Writing in 1925, French writer Jules Bois recalled:

All Europe was stirred to pity and indignation over the martyrdom of the Bāb…among the littérateurs of my generation, in the Paris of 1890 the martyrdom of the Bāb was still as fresh a topic as had been the first news of his death. We wrote poems about him. Sarah Bernhardt entreated Catulle Mendès for a play on the theme of this historic tragedy…[3]

Another influential figure whose attention was captured by the Bāb and Bahā’u’llāh was Tolstoy, who wrote that the Baha'is

have a great future…because they have thrown away the artificial superstructures which separate [the religions] from one another and are aiming at uniting all mankind in one religion…And therefore, in that it educates men to brotherhood and equality and to the sacrificing of their sensual desires in God's service, I sympathize with [it] with all my heart.[4]

Bābī and Bahā’ī Scriptures

The religion founded by the Bāb and Bahā’u’llāh is very much a religion of the Book. Baha'is believe that central to all the world’s great faiths, the power of the “Word” inspires human beings to develop their noblest qualities and create new patterns of society. Baha'i scriptures consist of the words of the Bāb and Bahā’u’llāh that were immediately written down, authenticated, and shared far and wide.

Iranians considered calligraphy the highest art form and the Bāb’s own calligraphy is of exceptional quality. His works were often composed in the shape of a five-pointed star, called a “Temple” (ḥaykal) because of its resemblance to the human form. The British Library holds an example of such a manuscript in the Bāb’s own handwriting, the only known copy of this work.

The handwriting of the Bāb in the form of a five pointed star, the ḥaykal  (BL Or 6887)
The handwriting of the Bāb in the form of a five pointed star, the aykal  (BL Or 6887). Public Domain

The Bāb placed a great emphasis on perfection and refinement. “Whoever possesseth power over anything,” He wrote, “must elevate it to its uttermost perfection that it not be deprived of its own paradise.”[5] He gave the example of a piece of paper upon which some words have been written. The ‘paradise’ of that paper is to be adorned with gold illumination and patterns. In trying to bring all things to perfection, a human being is replicating the work of God, who brought into being the whole of creation in such a state. These ideas of the Bāb continue to influence the Bahā’ī community, especially in the building of Bahā’ī houses of worship around the world.

Picture of the Bahā’ī House of Worship in Delhi, India
The Baha'i House of Worship in Delhi, India. Copyright © Bahá'í International Community

Encounter with an Irish doctor

Considered a heretic, the Bāb was put on trial in July 1848 and bastinadoed. An Irish physician resident in Tabriz, Dr. William Cormick treated the Bāb’s wounds and left this account of him:

He was a very mild and delicate looking man, rather small in stature and very fair for a Persian, with a melodious soft voice, which struck me much…In fact his whole look and deportment went far to dispose one in his favour.[6]

Dr William Cormick
Dr William Cormick. Courtesy of Connections

The Bāb was executed in 1850. Thousands of Babis were also killed, many of them in the most gruesome ways.

It was while incarcerated in 1852 in a subterranean dungeon in Tehran that one of the most distinguished of the Bāb’s followers, Bahā’u’llāh (his title means “the Glory of God”), had a spiritual experience that is regarded as the birth of his own prophetic mission. He was subsequently exiled to Baghdad, beginning a 40 year period of banishment and imprisonment at the hands of the Persian and Ottoman authorities.

The Writings of Bahā’u’llāh

In Baghdad, Bahā’u’llāh wrote a number of major works, such as The Seven Valleys and The Hidden Words, as well as his foremost theological treatise, the Kitāb-i Īqān (the Book of Certitude). After ten years, ahead of a further exile, Bahā’u’llāh declared himself to be “He whom God shall make manifest” that the Bāb had foretold. From Edirne in what is now European Turkey, Bahā’u’llāh announced himself to be the Promised One prophesied in all religions and proclaimed his mission in letters to the world’s major kings and leaders, including Queen Victoria, Napoleon III, Tsar Alexander II and Pope Pius IX.

Bahā’u’llāh too was an exceptional calligrapher. The British Library has in its collection an example of some of his handwriting exercises as a child.


Album-of-Bahai-calligraphy-or_11098_f016r-15v
Calligraphic exercises of Bahā’u’llāh when a child (BL Or 11098). Public Domain

On many occasions his writings came into being in an extraordinary manner. Firstly, his secretary would have ready a number of reed pens and stacks of large sheets of paper. Bahā’u’llāh would then dictate to his secretary, speaking rapidly or chanting without pause. Such was the speed with which these verses had to be captured on the paper that they were only readable by the scribe himself.

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Revelation Writing: the script developed by Bahā’u’llāh’s secretary as a shorthand for taking his dictation (BL Or 16641). Public Domain

Later, the secretary would copy out what he had written in a legible handwriting. Bahā’u’llāh then approved the text. This version would then be copied and shared throughout the Middle East, and even as far afield as India, Burma (Myanmar) and China. Many Bahā’īs would bind collections of these writings into finely decorated volumes.

Collection-of-bahai-tablets-or_7852_f004r-3v
Illumined leaf from a volume of Bahā’u’llāh’s writings (BL Or 7852, ff. 1-2). Public Domain

Encounter with E.G. Browne

Finally imprisoned by the Ottoman authorities in the walled city of Akka (Acco), Bahā’u’llāh, wrote the most important of his works, the Kitab-i Aqdas (the Most Holy Book). In 1877, he moved to a mansion outside the city where he was visited in 1890 by Professor Edward G. Browne, who described the impression Bahā’u’llāh made upon him:

Edward-granville-browne
Portrait of Prof. E.G. Browne at about the time he visited Bahā’u’llāh. Public Domain, Courtesy of Moojan Momen

The face of him on whom I gazed I can never forget, though I cannot describe it. Those piercing eyes seemed to read one's very soul; power and authority sat on that ample brow; while the deep lines on the forehead and face implied an age which the jet-black hair and beard flowing down in indistinguishable luxuriance almost to the waist seemed to belie. No need to ask in whose presence I stood, as I bowed myself before one who is the object of a devotion and love which kings might envy and emperors sigh for in vain!

A mild dignified voice bade me be seated, and then continued:- “Praise be to God that thou hast attained!... Thou hast come to see a prisoner and an exile.... We desire but the good of the world and the happiness of the nations; yet they deem us a stirrer up of strife and sedition worthy of bondage and banishment.... That all nations should become one in faith and all men as brothers; that the bonds of affection and unity between the sons of men should be strengthened; that diversity of religion should cease, and differences of race be annulled—what harm is there in this?... Yet so it shall be; these fruitless strifes, these ruinous wars shall pass away, and the ‘Most Great Peace’ shall come...” [7]

Bahā’u’llāh’s shrine outside of Akka is considered the holiest place in the world by Baha'is. On Bahā’u’llāh’s instruction, the remains of the Bāb, which had been hidden in Iran for 50 years, were transferred to the Holy Land. In 1909 they were interred in a simple mausoleum on the slopes of Mount Carmel across the bay from Akka. They now rest beneath a majestic golden domed shrine, surrounded by exquisite terraced gardens.

Shrine of the Bab
The Shrine of the Bāb on Mount Carmel. Copyright © Bahá'í International Community

Today, Baha'is, who number several millions and live in nearly every country in the world, are engaged with their friends and neighbours in a collaborative programme that aims to develop the spiritual and material prosperity of their communities.


Moojan Momen, Independent Scholar
 ccownwork


[1] Matthew Arnold, “A Persian Passion Play”, The Cornhill Magazine, vol. 24 (London, 1871, pp. 668-71), p. 668; also in Matthew Arnold, Essays in Criticism (London: MacMillan, 4th ed. 1884, repr. 1902), p. 226.
[2] Edward Granville Browne, A Year among the Persians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, new ed. 1926), p. 330.
[3] Jules Bois, “The New Religions of America. III – Babism and Bahaism”, Forum, vol. 7 (Concord, NH, USA, July, 1925), pp. 1-10.
[4] Paul Birukoff, Tolstoi und der Orient: Briefe und sonstige Zeugnisse über Tolstois Beziehungen zu den Vertretern orientalischer Religionen (Zurich: Rotapfel, 1925), pp. 99-100; translated in Moojan Momen, The Bábí and Bahá’í Religions, 1844-1944: Some Contemporary Western Accounts (Oxford: George Ronald, 1981), p. 55.
[5] “The Bāb, Persian Bayān, Vāḥid 4, Chapter 11”. Translated in Nader Saiedi, Gate of the Heart ([Waterloo, ONT]: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2008, p. 255.
[6] Edward G. Browne, Materials for the Study of the Bábí Religion, p. 262.
[7] ———, A Traveller’s Narrative Written to Illustrate the Episode of the Báb, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. xxxix-xl.