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COLLECTIONUnpublished articles
TITLELogos, Mythos and Kerygma: The Logic of Reconciliation and the Occultation of the Promised Qá'im in Bábí-Bahá'í Scripture
AUTHOR 1Ismael Velasco
ABSTRACTTheological background of the Twelfth Imam in Shi'i Islam, comprehensive interpretation of Bahá'u'lláh's and 'Abdu'l-Bahá's position on the occultation and the Qá'ím, and the historicity of the 12th Imám in the Bahá'í writings.
NOTES This is an unfinished draft of a paper, and is still missing some references.
TAGS- Interfaith dialogue; Hidden Imam; Imams; Islam; Jábulqá and Jábulsá; Javahirul-Asrar (Gems of Divine Mysteries); Logos; Mythology; Qaim; Reconciliation; Shiism; Twelfth Imam; Unity of religion
CONTENT Nietzsche's madman,[1] pondering the death of God as the nineteenth century approached its term, and coming face to face with the awesome puzzle of its aftermath could only exclaim:

"Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun? Wither is it moving now? Wither are we moving now? Away from all suns? ...Is there any up or down left?" [2]

Today, the madman's puzzle has become everyman's question, with the erosion of age-old points of reference for "up or down", as growing numbers question the gravitational centres of their ethnicity, their religion or want of it, their gender and sexuality, their every every sun, every horizon, engendering what Appadurai describes as a "new order of instability in the production of modern subjectivities".[3]

On the one hand such processes, such collapses, such implosions of seemingly reified schemas, disclose possibilities for more inclusive and harmonious interpretations of the grand narratives that ordered for centuries our sense of ourselves and of others, enabling unprecedented degrees of cross-cultural insight and participation in shared meaning. On the other hand, the selfsame speed and nature of these changes furnishes fresh incentives for cultural conflict, for entrenchment in ever hardening identities to serve as barricades to hold the tide of cultural relativism, "where meanings, in a chaotic pattern rather than neatly ordered, are of necessity relativised to one another".[4]

"For some time now we have realized it:" Italo Calvino adverts, "the storeroom of humanity's accumulated materials — mechanisms, machines, merchandises, markets, institutions, documents, poems, emblems, photograms, opera picta, arts and trades, encyclopedias, cosmologies, grammars, places and figures of speech, ties of kinship, tribe and enterprise, myths and rituals, operational models — no way remains to keep them in order. ...All the parameters, the categories, the antitheses, that had served to imagine, classify and project the world, are up for discussion. And not only those closest to historic attributions of values: the rational and the mythic, to work and to exist, masculine and feminine, and even the poles of more elementary topologies, like affirmation and negation, the tall and the short, the living and the thing."[5]

The 19th century Persian Prophet, Bahá'u'lláh, had also prefigured this development in the richly symbolic language of kerygma:

"The heaven of every religion hath been rent, and the earth of human understanding been cleft asunder... The mountains have passed away, and the heavens have been folded together... We see men drunken in this Day, the Day in which men and angels have been gathered together."[6]

It ought not to surprise that such a context, such a "Day", should have a profoundly destabilising implications not only for our societies but for our very notions of self and of the Other, prompting re-appropriations of the past and claims on the future amidst efforts to write and re-write, even re-script our self-conceptions. "Indeed," Kalb remarks, "the cultural economy that marks the global age revives all sorts of identity-movements, in particular those associated with religion and ethnicity". [7]

The processes of such collective seeking can be powerfully ennobling, but they can equally degrade the human spirit, as illustrated by episodes of ethnic cleansing or religious intolerance, as peoples cling to landmarks of once coherent, or more coherent selves, like another epic madman, this time not Nietzche's but Nizami's, whose friends admonished him for seeking Layli, his beloved, in the dust: "I seek her everywhere; haply somewhere I shall find her."[8] "As it turns out," notes Donald Kalb, "globality can foster both, an ecumenical humanism or the fundamentalist rejection of just that."

This is perhaps nowhere more disturbing than among religious communities, as the Universal House of Justice, itself the elected head of a world religion, most recently highlighted:

"the greater part of organized religion stands paralyzed at the threshold of the future, gripped in those very dogmas and claims of privileged access to truth that have been responsible for creating some of the most bitter conflicts dividing the earth's inhabitants. The consequences, in terms of human well-being, have been ruinous. It is surely unnecessary to cite in detail the horrors being visited upon hapless populations today by outbursts of fanaticism that shame the name of religion."[9]

Nor were observers, - even (or perhaps particularly) the most influential - expecting such a dénouement to the seemingly indisputable death of God. "This", political scientists advert, "is a new phenomenon... Instead of the Weberian iron cage and the progressive disenchantment of the world that was supposed to be congruent with modernization within the nation-state framework, we now face the spread of religion, ethnicity, and identity politics [where] as yet unknown and inflammatory cultural politics is produced, a politics of difference that cannot be contained within the "cordon sanitaire" of the inevitably homogenizing modern nation-state."[10]

It may indeed be true, in a mythic way, that in the course of the 19th century, "we killed God" as Nietzsche so percipiently observed;[11] as the process of expunging the sacred from the narrative of modernity, begun long before, was all but completed by the time "the age of extremes" opened in the twentieth century.[12]

But in religious consciousness this was not the first time God had been killed, and those times too the deed proved to be very far from final. In the Christian story for example such a cosmic act had already been perpetrated once in Jesus' crucifixion. This did not for Christians prove to be the end of God, but rather a temporary obscuration, which at the term of a mere "three days" led Jesus' followers to declare His resurrection, and the society that had discounted Him to reappraise the situation — as it perplexingly discovered the resurgence of an apparently moribund Christianity on a scale and vitality hitherto undreamt of and inconceivable. It likewise would seem that the much later murder of God whose perpetration Nietzsche recorded with a mixture of exhilaration and dismay, turns out to have been but a preliminary - and "after three days" God appears as strong as ever in the fractious and disturbing "return of the religious"[13] into the consciousness, if not yet the language of modernity.

This return has not, indeed, been uncomplicated or harmonious. On the contrary, "inflammatory cultural politics" increasingly characterise our discourses on religious identity, tragically illustrated in the iconic moment of September 11, 2001. Faced with such politics of difference, grounded and legitimated in the religious sphere on the basis of conflicting claims and narratives that the attentive reader soon discovers within and between the sacred texts of the world's religions, it may be posited that the logic of "reconciliation" constitutes the heart and soul of a Bahá'í hermeneutic, and the "reality of reconciliation" it's a-priori assumption.

Embracing paradox: The experience of contradiction and the logic of reconciliation

Shoghi Effendi is unequivocal on the reconciliatory logic of the Bahá'í Faith, "a Faith which is at once the essence, the promise, the reconciler, and the unifier of all religions";[14] "its avowed, its unalterable purpose is to widen their basis, to restate their fundamentals, to reconcile their aims".[15] "The aim of Bahá'u'lláh... is reconcile rather than accentuate the divergences of the conflicting creeds which disrupt present-day society",[16] inasmuch as ""the Revelation identified with Bahá'u'lláh reconciles [previous Dispensations'] seemingly divergent claims and doctrines"[17]

Likewise `Abdu'l-Bahá, addressing Stanford University on October 8, 1912, was recorded as stating: "Fifty years ago Bahá'u'lláh declared the necessity of peace among the nations and the reality of reconciliation between the religions of the world... He proclaimed that if the reality underlying religious teaching be investigated all religions would be unified, and the purpose of God, which is love and the blending of human hearts, would be accomplished."[18]

Such passages induce, on a superficial reading, a feeling of well-being, a promise of coherence, a sense of arrival at some kind of solid ground at a time when "every solid thing hath been made to flow"[19], when all round we hear the voices, in the words of Spanish writer Fernando Savater, of those "for whom clamouring equally against everything — against slavery and against those that abolished it, against the liberty that establishes laws in defence of values capable of being universal and against those that reduce it to the intransigent whim of a few, against force utilized against tyrants and against such as is exerted by demagogic autocrats,"[20]

In such a context, Bahá'u'lláh's declaration of "the reality of reconciliation" beckons with a promise of coherence which seems an oasis in a desert of fragmentation. But enticing though one finds Bahá'u'lláh's witness to "the reality of reconciliation", and emboldened though one may become by the directions and signals left in His writings to guide the way to its location, a closer look ("repeat the gaze")[21] perhaps portends that the instinctual feelings of relief are premature. For it must be recognised that the very word "reconciliation" implies and necessitates a starting-point of conflict, and that "the reality of reconciliation", declared by Bahá'u'lláh, must be laboriously and imaginatively sought if it is to be found at all. Bahá'u'lláh's declaration of "the reality of reconciliation", `Abdu'l-Bahá's assertion of "the primal oneness deposited at the heart of all created things",[22] and like texts, impart to Bahá'í hermeneutics a sense of direction, a goal, and an interpretive starting point against which progress may be measured — but it is some way from obviating the necessity of the journey itself, or even warranting attainment.

This recognition, that we must still find the way to reconciliation along a trail of seemingly irreducible contradictions may well induce what Muslim mystics and Bahá'í texts alike designate hayra, the wonderment, amaze, bewilderment, astonishment, marvel and perplexity which makes up the sixth valley of both Bahá'u'lláh's Seven Valleys and Attar's Conference of Birds. Such astonishment may be an elevated, but it is also a troubling condition, which Webster's dictionary defines as "to strike with a sudden sense of surprise or wonder especially through something unexpected or difficult to accept as true or reasonable". A state expounded by Burckhardt as "a feeling of dismay or perplexity in front of a situation which appears as having no way out, or in front of incompatible truth on the rational level. It is the ultimate crisis of a mind which meets with its own limits" (T. Burckhardt, Letters of a Sufi Master)

This is not an unusual experience, but on the contrary typical, though we may do all we can to push it to the margins of our consciousness. As Bahiyyih Nakhjavani reminds us:

"Religion ...brings man to an encounter with the contradictions within himself again and again... Such confrontation not being the most comfortable experience in the world, what is more instinctive than that man will find every possible means to avoid it? ... One of the startling proofs of the validity of the Bahá'í Faith is that it requires us to face these contradictions, that it explores them, glorifies them, sets them at its very centre. From the simplest detail of function on an administrative committee to abstract speculations on the Word of God, we are challenged to beware of slipping into one extreme or the other, of losing sight of one facet of truth in order to support another."[23]

In relation to the sacred texts of the world, Bahá'í exegetical reconciliation of initial contradiction has been frequently effected through a range of techniques including historical contextualisation, metaphorical interpretation, and an a-priori assumption of inward, inherent, kerygmatic consensus or convergence.[24] It is perhaps more comfortable for Bahá'ís to engage in the kind of plural and destabilising exegesis Bahá'í theology entails in relation to the texts of "previous" dispensations, than it is to apply such perspectives to one's own. Indeed, it may be entirely unexpected to find reconciliation needed in a Bahá'í canon we are accustomed to experience as immediately and uncomplicatedly coherent. But as this paper illustrates, it is probable that no discourse having to communicate high spiritual truths through the crude instrument of human language will be free of the need of reconciliation, as the essential oneness of reality is refracted through the variegated multiplicity of words:

"If I speak forth, many a mind will shatter,
And if I write, many a pen will break."[25]

We are reminded of Shoghi Effendi's dictum:

"One might liken Bahá'u'lláh's teachings to a sphere; there are points poles apart, and in between the thoughts and doctrines that unite them."[26].

We are thus confronted, within a Bahá'í theological perspective, with the validity of paradox; where positions polarise and yet are held to be harmonious, though "the thoughts and doctrines that unite them" may not be immediately apparent. Such paradox goes to the heart of very many related issues in Bahá'í hermeneutics. As Bahiyyih Nakhjavani insists:

"A close textual study of Bahá'u'lláh's language as well as an investigation of any one of His teachings, challenges us to bear various elements in mind simultaneously. Though we may crave for some hard and fast rule, though we may wish for a ready solution to the restless dilemma we have to face in daily decisions, yet we find ...that the secret of dealing with dilemmas is not elimination but reconciliation, not by exclusion but inclusion. The purpose of the Manifestation of God is not to give us a tidy set of rules that lead to the death of the spirit, but to toss us in the paradox of choice where we might live and burn. To be a Bahá'í is to have the courage to do this."[27]

The philosophical value of paradox is an age old concept, Ernest Becker going so far as to hold that the capacity to contain the maximum paradox is the highest form of heroism. Its inability to close the circle, its irreparable uncertainty of meaning, does not necessarily equate to meaninglessness or to the impossibility of subjective certitude or inter-subjective insight. But it does inherently and irreparably clip our wings and sever all aspiration to what Kant described as apodictic knowledge,[28] or indeed, if we be sincere, even to apodictic rhetoric. Not unusually, we find ourselves before what the Greek sceptics after Sextus Empiricus called equipollence,[29] meaning the equal strength of seeming contradictory arguments or postulates, an equipollence which they valued and we fear for its capacity to induce epochee, the suspension, not of belief as is generally held, but of assent; a rationality poised at the very threshold where doubt and conviction meet or separate.

While for the Greek pyrrhonists this led to a carefully nurtured state of philosophical and religious doubt, for Montaigne it did the very opposite, as exemplified in his amusing yet profound Apology for Raymond Sebond.[30] For him equipollence did not consist of merely positing equally convincing arguments for irreconcilable conclusions, but rather cultivating emotional empathy simultaneously for antithetical stances and points of view, giving his deep religious faith a breadth of humanity that made his embrace of paradox perhaps an act of compassion and intellectual, even epistemic magnanimity; an expression of respect for the relatively puny yet truly sacred efforts of frail humanity to make sense of an immense and bewilderingly various universe, in both its grandeur and its seemingly prosaic minutiae. This perspective has some relevance to the Bahá'í logic of reconciliation, which likewise depends on creative empathy for seemingly exclusive claims and qualities, on the imaginative embrace of paradox. As William Collins propounds:

"The vision inspired by Bahá'u'lláh is a progression of images that is intended to heighten the experience of the paradoxical in a succession of contrasting yet related imageries, provoke a crisis of understanding, [and] inspire the leap to new knowledge".

For paradox, it may be readily perceived, is not simply a literary device, but inherent in the art of living. "Once we have grasped that man is a bundle of contradictions" Nakhjavani concludes, "we see that his power to survive, to create and revive his civilizations depends upon his ability to find structures, capable of serving his individual and social needs, that contain the maximum paradox. A study of the Bahá'í Faith shows us such a structure and confronts us with such paradoxes. It is a religion, uniquely flexible and disturbingly comprehensive, which requires us to sustain and support conflicts without abdication or compromise... This requires something akin to artistry. We need to exert our utmost creativity and become spiritual artists, so to speak".[31]

The Bahá'í hermeneutic, then, is also an exercise in creativity, without which paradox is destined to remain mere contradiction, and equipollence the end rather than starting point of reconciliation.

We have chosen to focus on the Babi-Bahá'í texts on the 12th Imam as a case study, where we encounter an abundant platform for amaze, sources rich in paradox and hermeneutical tension. It is not our purpose here to attempt an exploration of the very complex area of the Bab's eschatological claims, not least that of Qa'imiyyat, that is, being the Qa'im, the hidden, Twelfth Imam re-emerged from occultation after a thousand years of expectation - beyond pointing out that here likewise we find a polysemic field, full of interpretive tensions and unresolved puzzles.[32] At the basis of the hermeneutical tension in the Bahá'í texts under review however, is the prominent claim to Qa'imiyyat on the part of the Bab, and the inherent, as well as frequently (indeed pervasively) explicit validation of the pleroma of the 12 Imams and the four gates or deputies of the hidden, 12th Imam Whom the Bab in the fullness of His ministry explicitly claimed to be.[33] The tension arises from the fact that Bahá'í sources radically challenge the historicity on which have been built the Shi'i eschatological expectations of the Twelfth Imam, which the Bab claimed to fulfil and hence may be said to have legitimised. Equally perplexing, we find in Bahá'u'lláh's writings statements questioning the veracity of sacred figures which the Bab upheld and praised. In the writings of Bahá'u'lláh and of `Abdu'l-Bahá the re-writing of the eschatological drama of the occultation and return of the 12th Imam, begun already by Shaykh Ahmad and Siyyid Kazim and revolutionised by the Bab Himself, takes place on three levels, in which both conflict and reconciliation, contradiction and paradox, are potential conclusions: the historical or literal, the hermeneutical or metaphorical, and the kerygmatic or anagogical, in which lies perhaps the key to the puzzle, opening a range of possible interpretive solutions.

The Occultation of the Twelfth Imam in Shi'i history

Our knowledge of the early events of the occultation is primarily based on the writings of Sa'd al-Qummi, al-Nawbakhti, al-Kulayni, al Mas'udi, al-Saduq, al-Mufid, and al-Tusi[34] From these collections of traditions one can build on the one hand mythologized accounts of events, and on the other critical historical accounts.[35] The former accounts, particularly in their eschatological elements, have been undoubtedly enriched by subsequent hadith collections, not least the Biharu'l-Anwar of Majlisi.[36] A comprehensive survey of Shi'i history in the aftermath of the 11th Imam (Hasan al-Askari)'s death is beyond the scope of this paper. Rather it is intended to highlight some key historical and historiographical factors that lie at the heart of the hermeneutic puzzle presented by Bahá'í writings on the 12th Imam.

In a summary and simplistic manner, we could state the mythologized script ruling Qajar Shi'i notions of the 12th Imam as follows.

When the 11th Imam, Hasan Al-Askari, died, he left a slave, variously known as Sayqal, Rayhanah, Susan and Narjis,[37] pregnant with a child named Muhammad, who became the 12th Imam, and at the age of 5 went into a cave in Samarra that led him into millenial occultation, communicating at first through a series of deputies and finally closing all physical contact with His community, hiding in the mysterious and supernatural cities of Jabulsa and Jabulqa, to return in the fullness of time to fill the earth with justice. This is captured in the iconic poetry of Himyar (d. after 171/787) who is believed by the Shi'a to have foretold the occultation of the 12th Imam and is cited by Ibn Babwayh and Shaykh Mufid as encapsulating their (Imami) beliefs:

"That the one in authority (wali al-amr) and the Qa'em... / For him [is decreed] an occultation (ghayba); inevitably will he vanish / And may God bless him who enacts the occultation. / He will pause a while, then manifest his cause / And fill all the East and West with justice."[38]

This perspective on the occultation of the Twelfth Imam, albeit becoming normative in Twelver Shi'ism with the passing of the centuries, in fact took a considerable time to crystallise, and the early narratives are full of descriptions of the numerous and radical divisions that obtained following the death of the eleventh Imam. In particular, perhaps the most serious challenge to the above narrative at the time of the death of the 11th Imam, Hasan al-Askari, came from his brother Ja'far, who vehemently disputed Sayqal's claim to being pregnant with his child, stating that the 11th Imam had died childless, and branding Sayqal a liar. In fact Shi'i history branded Ja'far not only as a liar, but the liar (al-Kadhdhab) - perhaps as implicit recognition of the challenge he represented - an archetype of betrayal to be execrated until the end of time for seeking to dethrone the Imam Mahdi and gain leadership in his own right. Thus while the traditional narratives do not shy away from reporting schisms, they discard alternative versions such as Jafar's primarily on the basis of theological premises derived from the eschatological pronouncements ascribed to the previous Imams, especially the 6th, Ja'far as-Sadiq.

Critical history, as is to be expected, differs considerably in its approach to the narrative, methodologically excluding the supernatural from the story, and therefore unlikely to accept the occultation of the 12th Imam on the basis of theological considerations or prophetic statements from a putative earlier period. Rather it seeks to demythologise the narrative to get close to "what really happened", that is, at a plausible scenario that dispenses with supernatural explanations, the deus ex-machina of historical prose. The consequence is that dissenting accounts are not accepted or dismissed on theological grounds, nor are orthodox versions accepted at face value, but

sifted through the critical apparatus of historical analysis. The resulting picture, in its salient points, is predictably quite different from the eschatologically charged account presented earlier, and begins by questioning the very fact of the occultation, the sine qua non of Twelver Shi'ism, thus supporting, in this respect, the veracity of Ja'far's assertions.

The Occultation of the 12th Imam as Mythos

What evolved then after the death of the 11th Imám, Hasan al-Askari, is a myth of survival and occultation that gave deep and lasting meaning to the profound crisis in which the Shi'i community found itself, on the one hand, and on the other rescued and liberated the legacy of spiritual guidance of the previous 11 Imams that continues to inspire and motivate Shi'is around the world more than a thousand years after the passing of the 11th Imam Hasan al-Askari. This extraordinary achievement is almost entirely due to the spiritual vitality and authenticity of the narrative of the occultation and anticipated return which acted in much the same way as the Christian kerygma to preserve the mythos and spirituality of religion over and above the disenchanting vicissitudes of history.[39]

In this perspective it is important to emphasise that the words myth and mythos are used in a technical way to describe a transcendent system of meaning built around a sacred narrative, rather than in a colloquial manner to designate `a story that is not really true'. As Karen Armstrong writes in her introduction to The Battle for God:

"We tend to assume that the people of the past were (more or less) like us, but in fact their spiritual lives were rather different. In particular, they evolved two ways of thinking, speaking, and acquiring knowledge, which scholars have called mythos and logos. Both were essential; they were regarded as complementary ways of arriving at truth, and each had its special area of competence.

Myth was regarded as primary; it was concerned with what was thought to be timeless and constant in our existence. Myth looked back to the origins of life, to the foundations of culture, and to the deepest levels of the human mind. Myth was not concerned with practical matters, but with meaning. Unless we find some significance in our lives, we mortal men and women fall very easily into despair. The mythos of a society provided people with a context that made sense of their day-to-day lives; it directed their attention to the eternal and the universal."

About logos, on the other hand, Armstrong writes:

"Logos was equally important. Logos was the rational, pragmatic, and scientific thought that enabled men and women to function well in the world. We may have lost the sense of mythos in the West today, but we are very familiar with logos, which is the basis of our society. Unlike myth, logos must relate exactly to facts and correspond to external realities if it is to be effective. It must work efficiently in the mundane world."

The distinction between mythos and logos may be traced back to Plato, who used it to differentiate two ways of explaining the world: either by providing an explicit rational account (logos), which combines with belief to form accurate knowledge (Gk. episteme) of the essence of things; or merely by telling a story with figurative significance (mythos). Although Plato typically derided myth as inferior to analysis, Philo Judaeus incorporated it as allegorical interpretation in order to synthesize theology and philosophy. [40]

In describing the Occultation narratives as mythic in function, we are saying that the narratives necessarily carry, even before entering into historical-critical or metaphysical considerations, a degree of indisputable psychological and social reality. The narratives of the Occultation of the 12th Imám, and the expectations and prophecies of his return, embody, for the community of Shi'i Muslims, social, psychological and spiritual facts in sacred histories rich in what `Abdu'l-Bahá describes as "allusions, metaphors, abstruse language, and interpretations"[41] that need decoding if logos and mythos would be reconciled.

The significance of such a project of reconciliation is not to be underestimated, as the conflict between mythos and logos has been one of the spiritual fault lines of the last two centuries, to which may arguably be traced some of the most critical dilemmas of our time. Reflecting on this tension, the Argentinian psychotherapist Marta Beatriz Guberman writes:

"In the West, this semantic confrontation [between mythos and logos] has a long and tragic tradition, in the course of which "mythos" went from being speech directly revealing of a realm beyond, to being superstitious and false speech. It's true that the discovery of reason must entail innumerable benefits, but no less true is the profound rupture that it meant for human history.

" it is not a matter of suppressing, but of integrating, of interrelating harmoniously what is implicit and what is explicit, clarity and obscurity, distinctiveness and ambiguity. Only thus will it be possible to seek after the real human being. Mythos and Logos are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, both constitute an array of expresivities, complementing and fulfilling one another. Only both, together, will enable man to find his way in the world, imparting meaning to his existence.

"The severing from each other brings Logos into islolation, unable to apprehend hopes, desires, wants. Mythos, for its part, apart from Logos' critique is left vulnerable to manipulation, at risk of its force being used in destructive and perverse ways. An example of Logos isolated from Mythos is seen in the fatalism and scepticism prevailing in great part of the post-war generation, but also making itself felt in the new generations. Its distinctive note is a provisional attitude to life:

living for the day because we may not be here tomorrow. And if we are, everything will be the same. An absence of values such a love, solidarity, justice, shuts out hope for a better future, since leaning exclusively on reason it is impossible to have faith in the future. Likewise Mythos, in isolation from Logos, is no less dangerous. Examples of its manipulation may be seen in the messianic and fanatical political regimes whose absence of critical reasoning leads them to perpetrate the most terrible crimes in the name of the values they claim to uphold."[42]

It is therefore of significance that the reconciliation between mythos and logos will be argued to constitute the basis of Bahá'u'lláh's re-writing of the story of the 12th Imam's occultation.

The Irruption of Logos: Bahá'u'lláh on the historicity of the Twelfth Imam

Bahá'u'lláh mediates an unflinching engagement of the two realms of discourse, mythos and logos, in His discussions of the Occultation narratives, intuiting an ultimate convergence between the two language-games, if honestly employed. The trajectory which Bahá'u'lláh's hermeneutic traverses on the subject of the Twelfth Imam's occultation and return recalls some of the more poetic and elusive of His prayers and meditations, where He addresses God as:

"Thou, Who through but one word of Thy mouth, caused all things to expire and dissolve asunder, and Who, by yet another word, caused whatever had been separated to be combined and reunited!" (Bahá'u'lláh, Prayers and Meditations by Bahá'u'lláh, p. 132)

And again:

"I testify that no sooner had the First Word proceeded, ...the realities of all created things were shaken, were divided, separated, scattered, combined and reunited, disclosing, in both the contingent world and the heavenly kingdom, entities of a new creation, and revealing, in the unseen realms, the signs and tokens of Thy unity and oneness." (Bahá'u'lláh, Prayers and Meditations by Bahá'u'lláh, p. 295)

Indeed, before the integration of the conflicting universes of discourse implicit in the historical events and hiero-historical narratives that followed the passing of the 11th Imam, Hasan al-Askari, Bahá'u'lláh's hermeneutic effects an unravelling of traditional and time-honoured Shi'i discourses on the Twelfth Imam, through which key narrative elements are "shaken, ...divided, separated, scattered", causing received understandings of the Twelfth Imam and His mysterious occultation "to expire and dissolve asunder". This is achieved by the irruption of logos into the established mythos, in a way that would be highly familiar and comfortable to the modern secular historian, but utterly alien and disquieting to the orthodox Shi'i. Only in the context of the disruption of mythos by logos does Bahá'u'lláh's re-telling of the story re-enchant the narrative, restore or rather recreate its mythic content, and renew sacred history, causing "whatever had been separated to be combined and reunited", and disclosing "in both the contingent world and the heavenly kingdom, entities of a new creation".

Bahá'u'lláh's in many ways startling revision of Shi'i sacred history, would appear at first sight, and has been taken to be, an exercise in "radical demythologisation".[43] It has likewise prompted at least one missionary apologist opposed to the Bahá'í Faith to see in it a polemical opportunity.[44]

It is around Ja'far's testimony upon the passing of his brother Hasan, the 11th Imam, that the Bahá'í historiographical rewriting focuses. A good summary of the place of Ja'far in the drama that followed the death of the 11th Imám Hasan al-Askari is given by Hasan Balyuzi:

"When the eleventh Imam, Hasan al-'Askari, passed away... His brother, Ja'far, whom the Shi'ahs have styled al-Kadhdhah (The Liar) asserted that the Imam had died childless. A slave of the Imam, named Sayqal, claimed that she was with child. The 'Abbasid Caliph had her removed to his own palace, to be kept under close surveillance.

"The wives of the Caliph and of the Chief Justice, Ibn-Abi'sh-Shawarib, watched over her. Eventually her claim was found to be fictitious. But for years the poor woman was fought over by various factions. Ja'far, who had from the start assailed her veracity, made matters worse by persecuting her in diverse ways...

In the meantime another dispute had broken out between Ja'far and the mother of the eleventh Imam over his property. Once the Caliph was satisfied that there was no child to inherit from the Imam, he decided, after a bitter litigation which lasted seven years, that both the brother and the mother of Imam Hasan al-'Askari should be his heirs...

"But overshadowing any claim which Ja'far laid to the spiritual station or worldly goods of his brother was his fierce contention with that body of the Sh'iahs who maintained that the twelfth Imam lived, hidden from the eyes of men. Through thick and thin he asserted that his brother had died without issue. However, there was an eminent follower of the eleventh Imam, Abu-'Amr 'Uthman Ibn Sa'id al-'Umari, who claimed that Muhammad, the five-year-old son of the deceased Imam, had chosen to withdraw from the sight of men, and that he himself had been invested with authority to act as his deputy, and establish a link between the infant twelfth Imam and the body of the faithful. He stated that epistles from the Hidden Imam were transmitted through him. The ensuing confusion amongst the Sh'iahs can be well imagined." [45]

Given that the edifice of Twelver Shi'ísm was reared on the belief of the survival of the 12th Imám in secret and his initial communication through a series of intermediaries begining with Abu-'Amr 'Uthman, it is not surprising that Ja'far's claims should remain to this day anathema to devout Shi'ís. In the context of Qajar Persia, therefore, Bahá'u'lláh's validation of "The Liar"'s word would be positively unnerving. Nor was such validation ambiguous:

"Ja'far uttered one word of truth and veracity but they called him the liar for nearly 1300 years..." (Bahá'u'lláh, AQA volume 7 page 79)

"They asked of Ja'far, brother of 'Askari: 'Did your brother leave a son?' He replied: 'There was a child, and it died.' When the embodiments of fancy heard these words, they cried foul and named him 'the Liar.' Consider the magnitude of their oppression, the depths of calumny to which they sank.

Those souls were lost, wandering in the wilderness of vain imaginings and idle fancies. This title "Liar" will return from that truthful speaker [Ja'far] unto these people of Pharaoh." (Bahá'u'lláh cited by Ishraq Khavari in Ma'idih-yi Asmani, vol. 8, pp. 101f. - Vahid Brown translation. See also Fá e Maazandaraani Amr va Khalq Volume 2, page 3)

"The story of Qa'im (i.e., the 12th Imam) is based solely on the authority of the word of one woman (rAvee-e vujood hazrat-i qA'im zanee boodeh), that when hazrat-i Ja`far was asked if his Brother [Imam Hasan-i Askaree] had any living male children, that wronged one [Ja`far] denied it by saying that [his Brother] had a Child two years before who had died. Bahá'u'lláh then adds that people of malice (s.Ah.ebAn-i gharaz) condemned and cast him out and called him a liar (oo rA t.ard va la`n namoodand va kadhdhAbash goftand) and accepted the word of that liar woman and made it official because it was in accord with their desires and selfish interests (va qawl-e An zan-e kAdhebeh chun muvAfeq-e havA va aghrAz-e nafsAniyyih-y An nufoos-e ghAfeleh bood An rA akhdh kardand va e`lAn namoodand)." (Bahá'u'lláh, tablet to Aqa Mirza Aqa Afnan Shirazi, Nuri'd-Din, found in volume 1 of A. Ishraq-khavari's ma'idih Asmani, page 8, also cited on page 91 of volume 4 -provisional translation by Dr. Iskandar Haj

Bahá'u'lláh thus accepts Ja'far's testimony as true and, without denying the historicity of Imam al-Askari's son, maintains that he died in infancy before al-Askari's own death. Bahá'u'lláh's statements do not stop at asserting the veracity of Ja'far, but further probe into the motivations behind the rejection of the latter's claims. We are told above that the Imami majority "cast him out and called him a liar and accepted the word of that liar woman and made it official because it was in accord with their desires and selfish interests." (ibid.)

'Abdu'l-Bahá both amplifies and nuances this interpretation:

"After the passing of Imam H.asan 'Askari the leaders of the community became aware that the foundations of the hopes and aspirations of the Shi'ihs would be utterly destroyed and that they would all become dejected and reach oblivion. They, therefore, wanted to adhere to any means whatever to keep and preserve them. So they used allusions, metaphors, abstruse language, and interpretations and in this wise disagreeing narratives appeared. The truth of the matter is this that the Shi'ih community were divided into three after the Imam H.asan 'Askari, peace be upon Him.

Some adhered to the imamate of Ja'far the "ignorant" [=Ja'far e naadaan]. And this group congratulated and greeted his imamate. Another group completely gave up, and a third group pinned their hopes on the Occultation [=ghaybuubat], and they were eagerly anticipating each day the up-rising [=khuruuj]. It is now a thousand years that they are waiting and they are still not tired nor are they giving up." ('Abdu'l-Bahá, Ma'idiyi Asmani II page 54 bab e chehel va duvvum)

So we have before us an image of a deeply divided community on the morrow of the eleventh Imam's death, riven by division and competing claims to leadership, and faced with the possibility of extinction unless the matter of succession were addressed in such a way as to preserve the essentially charismatic vision of continuity in Shi'i Islam. This situation led to the adoption of "any means whatever to keep and preserve"[46] the Shi'i sodality, including the branding of Ja'far as a liar (who, notwithstanding other characteristics that appear to have been less than uplifting nevertheless, according to Bahá'u'lláh, spoke the truth on this matter), as well as the use of "allusions, metaphors, abstruse language, and interpretations" that crystallised into conflicting narratives regarding the legendary and supernatural Occultation of the 12th Imam. As `Abdu'l-Bahá writes elsewhere:

"some of the leaders of the Shi'ihs at that time in the past, merely to protect the weak souls considered it expedient to describe that Personage Who is present in the realm of the unseen in this manner. Their descriptions were such that one could almost imagine that He is in the realm of physicality... All this was their consideration, their thought their expedience." (Muh.Ad.arat Volume 2 page 833)

The question of the spiritual facticity of the mythos of the survival, occultation and eventual return of the 12th Imam will be addressed below. From the perspective of logos however, the idea of the Twelfth Imam's miraculous escape, physical survival, preservation, concealment, and anticipated return from the hidden but factual, physical cities of jabulsa and jabulqa in the fullness of time, is in Bahá'u'lláh's writings, as we have seen, clearly held to be historically, or more precisely biologically unfounded. For Bahá'u'lláh the son of the 11th Imam died in infancy, and hence it is impossible that he should have gone into hiding and issued guidance through intermediaries — how much more survived for a thousand or more years to emerge in the fullness of time miraculously preserved and attended by fabulous and overwhelming signs and wonders.

The architects of this mythology of survival were the Twelfth Imam's putative successors or more precisely deputies and intermediaries, the four abwab or gates to the Hidden Imam. By maintaining that the Twelfth Imam was not only alive and in hiding, but in secret and constant communication with them, they were able to secure the continuity, and to a large extent preserve the unity, of the Shi'a fold.

"A closer look at the early texts brings to light the fact that the essential activities of the `representatives' consisted in making sure that the canonical precepts were respected by the faithful, in collecting and distributing legal taxes; in taking the faithful's questions of a religious order to the hidden imam, then making public the imam's responses; and finally, in convincing the faithful who were prone to perplexity and confusion (during the period called the hayra) by performing `miracles.'"[47]

If, in assuming this function, the Four Gates were architects of the Occultation myth, then its engineers were the religious scholars who subsequent to the passing of the 11th Imam devoted formidable energy to compiling traditions from the previous Imams regarding the future Occultation. As Moezzi emphasises:

"if the belief in the existence of the son of the eleventh imam as the hidden imam and the expected Mahdi has ended up being an article of faith for the Imamites, it is essentially due to the tenacious efforts of authors/compilers like al-Kulayni, al-Nu`mani, and especially Ibn Babuye, who, through the great mass of traditions that concern this belief, progressively manage to convince the mass of faithful."[48]

So powerful was the mythic narrative they instilled, that in the fullness of time the story of the supernatural concealment of the Twelfth Imam, last successor from among the descendants of the Prophet of Islam, came to be the basis for the legitimation of the entire social order in Shi'i lands, and for the temporal as well as the spiritual authority of the `ulama in Iran. It remains so to this day. What is described by `Abdu'l-Bahá as an act of socio-cultural and even spiritual self-preservation for the Shi'i community thus evolved, from the Safavi period onwards, into a nodal point of political and economic interests too. It was an act not lacking in ambiguities, in paradoxes and perplexities, and it should therefore not surprise that the treatment of these sacred figures in the Babi and Bahá'í writings should be likewise ambiguous and paradoxical.

Reflecting in part the historical and spiritual achievement of preserving the spiritual vitality and influence of Shi'i Islam in conditions of extreme oppression, the Bab's writings as we shall see ascribe to the putative representatives of the 12th Imam an exalted position; and they occupy a key position in the mythos of the Bab's spiritual vision, not so much in the detail of their lives as individuals, as in the mythic function they symbolised in a pleroma of holy figures that made up an intricate evocation of the divine action in the worlds of revelation and of creation.[49]

On the other hand, in social, historical and kerygmatic terms, the legacy of these four individuals, the putative gates or deputies of the Hidden Imam, is assessed critically by Bahá'u'lláh and `Abdu'l-Bahá, and colours the judgement of these figures in Their writings. For while `Abdu'l-Bahá' contextualises and makes understandable the evolution of the complex mythology of the concealment and return of the Twelfth Imam as a means of preserving the identity and securing the survival and unity of a Shi'i community in crisis, Bahá'u'lláh nevertheless makes clear, and `Abdu'l-Bahá likewise expresses, that so much was vested in the course of time into the myth of occultation, that it became an impediment for renewal, for change, for social, cultural and spiritual innovation. Inasmuch as the mythology and theology of the occultation effectively froze eschatology into a tableau of literally unrealizable expectations, thus inherently precluding the possibility of a myth of fulfilment, which could, one thousand years on, re-enchant a worldview and revitalise a social fabric under severe strain in a Qajar society in the early throes of globalization. Most concretely, a direct consequence of the theological claims and political and economic interests that came to be legitimised on the basis of the mythology of the Occultation, was the practical impossibility of messianic renewal, and hence the a priori rejection of Bahá'u'lláh's and more particularly the Bab's claims.

For Corbin, for instance, the myth of the Occultation was such a central, critical factor in contemporary Shi'ism, that any claims to fulfilment of the eschatological expectations which that very myth contains and centres on, would be tantamount to the destruction of Shi'ism itself:

"If the Imam, first and last Theophany, is today the Hidden Imam, this is not a situation stemming from an external event taking place suddenly, a certain day, in the past. The date of the death of the last ná'ib marks merely a staging point . . . any public declaration reclaiming the station of Bab to the Imam, let alone that of the Imam himself, can only be an imposture - an imposture against which the Imam himself warned all his followers, in his last message to his last ná'ib. ". . . The consequences go very far: whoever would proclaim himself publicly to be the Bab of the Imam, would place himself eo ipso outside the Shi`ite sodality, since he would profane the fundamental secret, violate the ghaybat . . . It would mean the destruction of the Gestalt of time, as monstrous as the destruction of a musical form by its intempestivo interruption."[50]

The mindset that drove the Persian clergy to the point of killing the Bab and His followers is eloquently and almost sympathetically captured by `Abdu'l-Bahá in his Traveller's Narrative, and unequivocally grounded on the Occultation narratives:

"More especially when [the Bab's] claim of Mihdihood [that is, of being the return of the 12th Imam] reached the hearing of eminent divines and profound doctors they began to make lamentation and to cry and complain from their pulpits, saying, "One of the essentials of religion and of the authentic traditions transmitted from the holy Imams, nay, the chief basis of the the Occultation of the immaculate twelfth Imam... What has happened to Jabulqa? Where has Jabulsa gone?

What was the Minor Occultation? What has become of the Major Occultation? What are the sayings of Husayn ibn Ruh, and what the tradition of Ibn Mihriyar? ...Where are the signs which are in the traditions of the Holy Family? Where is that whereon the Victorious Church is agreed? The matter is not outside one of two alternatives: either we must repudiate the traditions of the Holy Imams, grow wearied of the [Shi'i community], and account the clear indications of the Imam as disturbed dreams; or, in accordance with the primary and subsidiary doctrines of the Faith and the essential and explicit declarations of the most luminous Law, we must consider the repudiation, nay, the destruction of this person as our chief duty." (`Abdu'l-Bahá: A Traveller's Narrative, Pages: 16-17)

Hence, and most tragically, by the 19th century the legal, theological and cultural edifice built around the story of the Occultation of the Twelfth Imam dictated, legitimised and propelled the suppression, incarceration, maltreatment and ultimate execution of the Bab Himself, and the decimation of His community in a most brutal and exquisite manner. It is this painful trauma, which also saw Bahá'u'lláh Himself being cast into a "pestilential dungeon" bound in chains notorious for their weight while His cellmates and co-religionists were picked one by one for torture and eventual execution — it is this legacy which underpins Bahá'u'lláh's trenchant critique of the abuse and distortion of mythos in the orthodox interpretation of the Occultation.

"From the inception of Islam there have been some souls who, wearing worn out clothes and deporting postures of humility [literally baa gardan haaye khaz.i'ah] with apparent sighs and lamentations have caused great harm and injury to the souls of the people. These people would go to every part of the land seeking places of privacy and use that privacy to reveal their so-called secret and innermost mystery. Then they would make mention of the sacred precinct, of Jabulqa, of Jabulsa and two or three fabricated and false narratives. The poor people would be oblivious of all this deception, and all these deceptions reached such a state that they ended with the shedding of the Most pure blood of the Bab. Those fabrications incarnated themselves in the shape of swords and spears and there was perpetrated on Him Who was the purpose of all that which neither the tongue can mention nor the pen can transcribe." (Ma'idih ye Asmani Volume 4 page 173)

Again, in Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, Bahá'u'lláh laments:

"O Hadi! The blind fanaticism of former times hath withheld the hapless creatures from the Straight Path. Meditate on the Shi'ih sect. For twelve hundred years they have cried "O Qá'im!", until in the end all pronounced the sentence of His death, and caused Him to suffer martyrdom, notwithstanding their belief in, and their acceptance and acknowledgment of, the True One" (Bahá'u'lláh, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 163)

It is on this basis specifically that Bahá'u'lláh refers, rather drastically, to the four gates (abwab) under whose leadership the narratives of the Occultation were framed as "daysprings of falsity" who "became the cause and reason of error":

"their four Gates became the cause and reason of error. If those false utterances had not emanated from these day springs of falsity [=mat.aali' e kiz.b], the Primal Point, may the spirit all else but Him be a sacrifice unto Him, would not have been martyred..." (Bahá'u'lláh, quoted in e Maazandaraani Amr va Khalq, Volume 2 page 3).

In particular, the third gate, Husayn Ibn Ruh, played a key role in the diffusion of the narratives that crystallised the messianic expectations of the Imami community regarding the occultation of the Twelfth Imam in the mysterious cities of Jabulsa and Jabulqa. About him Bahá'u'lláh writes:

"There is that one who after the Lord has Manifested Himself with His sovereignty and after the cycle of prophecy has been completed and sealed [khatama] with Muhammad the Messenger of God, yet he still adduces evidence according to his supposition [deduced from his own notion of] the Imamate and from the utterances of Husayn ibn Ruh (Nawbakhti). And this despite the fact that it is he who has veiled men because of his words and that which is related of him, utterances to the effect that the Promised One is in Jabulqa and such like. These you have all heard before. And if you look today carefully you will testify that the people of the Qur'an were not veiled from God and His Manifestation except by virtue of what this man has narrated." (Maidih volume 1 p61)

It is in fact on the leadership of the Shi'i community that Bahá'u'lláh concentrates His expressions of pain for His predecessor and His followers:

"Should any one ponder deeply on the events which transpired after the ascension of His holiness Imam Hasan 'e 'Askari, upon Him be God's salutations, and should one reflect on the plots of the unbelieving 'ulama, one would testify that all corruption [fasaad e 'aalam] emanated from them and this continues to be so [buudeh va hast]. I swear by the righteousness of our Lord! If it were not for the accumulated falsity of these leaders, the exalted Lord would not have been martyred by reason of the injustice and tyranny of His enemies. These people established his eminence the "supposed one", seating him upon an imaginary throne, and then with false and suppositious narratives affirmed all that which led to the shedding of the blood of the Lord of all mankind, and those essences of being."[51]

Bahá'u'lláh's stand in favour of Ja'far's testimony, no less than His assessment of the historical facticity of the declarations of the four abwab or intermediaries of the Twelfth Imam, puts him well out of the pale of Twelver Shi'i belief and community in a radical and dramatic way. For Bahá'u'lláh's historiographical stand in one swoop takes away the thread of historical claims from which the rich tapestry of eschatological expectations has been woven. For if the 11th Imam's child did die in infancy, and Sayqal was indeed not pregnant at the time of the 11th Imam's death, then no heir survived him, no child entered the cave in Samarra that led to Jabulqa, no physical occultation took place, and no epistles or letters of authority (tawqiyat) were signed by the Twelfth Imam legitimising the ministry of the four gates and their deputies. Thus the entire eschatological edifice of Shi'i Islam in its literal interpretation, painstakingly reared over a thousand years and protected to the death by both its leaders and devotees, in this reading of history, collapses from its foundation.

Bahá'u'lláh's position, historically and rationally more plausible than the supernatural occultation, habitation, communication, and physical preservation over a thousand years of the Twelfth Imam, in fact resonates with stances said to have emerged within the Shi'i community itself at the time of the 11th Imam's passing. This 11th Imam, Hasan al-Askari, died c.8th Rabi' 260 / 1st Jan, 874. Early sources are agreed that Imam al-Askari left no publicly acknowledged son and made no open declaration of successorship. Al-Mufid (d.413/1022) explains that the background to this is Abbasid oppression, with the caliph al-Mu'tamid seeking Imam al-Askari's son and with rumours circulating already in the imami community identifying the Qa'im al-Mahdi with either the 11th Imam or his son. Against this background the silence concerning succession may be understood, as well as the consequent factionalism.

Indeed, the imami community became divided in their response to the 11th Imam's death. The sources vary in identifying between 11 and 15 schisms, but Dr. Jassim M. Hussein[52] categorises them into 5 major splits, each subdividing into further divisions. These are as follows:

  1. Waqifa. They claimed that the 11th Imam had been the Qa'im al-Mahdi.
  2. Ja'farites. These held that the 11th Imam's younger brother, Ja'far, was the 12th Imam (but not the Qa'im)
  3. Muhammadiyya. These held that the 11th Imam's (deceased) brother Muhammad had been the 12th Imam, Ja'far's claim being invalidated by his immorality)
  4. Qat'iyya. Held that the Imam had a son, who was the 12th Imam. These was the majority view, and will be discussed below.
  5. Those who argued for the cessation of the Imamate.

As to the Qat'iyya, holding that Imam al-Askari had a son, they may be further subdivided into 6 groups according to the following claims:

  1. 11th Imam left a son, either in infancy or mature, who had gone into hiding to escape his uncle Ja'far's machinations. He was the 12th Imam, but not the Mahdi.
  2. Same as a) but the son was named Ali
  3. 11th Imam did not have a son during his lifetime but one was born to him after his death and was named Muhammad according to his father's wishes.
  4. 11th Imam did not have a son during his lifetime, but a slave-girl was expecting his son, and the pregnancy would last 100 years.
  5. 11th Imam had a son in his lifetime, named Muhammad, and he was al-Muntazzar (the Awaited One). He died in infancy but would be raised to life with a sword to fill the earth with peace and justice after it had been filled with war and injustice. This group, interestingly, is not mentioned in the surviving editions of the earliest sources, and is mentioned by al-Mufid. Dr. Hussain argues that, given that al-Mufid's account is based on different editions of the same sources, the likelyhood is that references to this group have been expunged from the surviving editions of the early sources for doctrinal reasons.
  6. 11th Imam had a son in his lifetime (15th Shaban 256/29 July 868), who was God's Hujja (Proof), who had hidden by order so that it was forbidden to seek him. This group was known as the imamiyya, and represented the majority view.

From the above it would appear that Bahá'u'lláh's position resonates with that of branch e) of the Qat'iyya discussed above, namely that Imam al-Askari had a son who had died in infancy and who was the promised Qa'im who would return.

This is a double claim, only the first half of which has been discussed, that is, Bahá'u'lláh assertion that the 11th Imam did have issue as declared by Ja'far, and that the child died soon after its birth. This type of claim is as far as history can take us, and Bahá'u'lláh's declarations, from the optic of the modern historian, strike us as logical and reasonable, whilst from the standpoint of the Qajar Shi'i milieu that He engaged they stand out as astonishingly bold statements, historiographical revisions fraught with truly enormous cultural consequences.

In short, Bahá'u'lláh turns the orthodox Twelver Shi'i narrative of the Hidden Twelfth Imam on its head through an application of historical reason. This is undoubtedly a reading in which logos predominates over mythos, going as far as to subsume the mythic narrative into a set social and cultural interests that the mythic narrative was said to preserve. Against pious Imami belief, Bahá'u'lláh declares veridical Ja'far's statement regarding the premature death of the 11th Imam's son in his infancy, and hence the lack of a temporal successor to the 11th Imam. This does not in any way amount to a vindication of the character of Ja'far as a whole, but rather of this "one truth" which he uttered and fiercely clung to for the remainder of his life. Whether or not in his general behaviour he was honest or dishonest, reliable or deceptive - on this matter, Bahá'u'lláh declares, he was "Ja'far the truthful".

This being so, all the narratives of the occultation, when read literally, are invalidated as historical evidence of the miraculous survival of a 12th Imam that was, and possibly is now, still in hiding in fabulous and as yet untraced cities. So are the accounts of physical contact between the 12th Imam and his four special deputies. While it is true that the construction of these narratives was designed to preserve the unity and subsistence of the Shi'i community at a time of brutal repression, and that they did so with great success; and while it is true that they established in the community of believers the presence and guidance of the Imams as a social (or as Corbin might have it a phenomenological) reality - a living, spiritual force instead of as an artefact of a defunct lineage — yet it is also true that these very narratives likewise became the rallying points of opposition to religious and social innovation, most particularly in this case that of the Bab and Bahá'u'lláh, and the shedding of the blood of innocents in horrendous and inventive manners. From this perspective it would be fair to express recognition for the feat of spiritual and communal preservation mediated by these intermediaries and chief transmitters of the Occultation narratives; while lamenting with Bahá'u'lláh the misuse of mythos, the tragic misreadings and missed-understandings which owe their origin to those narratives and those transmitters. They could therefore be regarded as figures of ambiguity in the Bábí Bahá'í canon, who might at the same time be seen as saviours of Shi'i Islam in its formative years, and "daysprings of falsity" in the far more opaque conditions of Qajar Persia.

The central question of whether the death of Imam al-Askari's child in infancy before the 11th Imam's own passing, acknowledged by Bahá'u'lláh, means that there could be no 12th Imam, remains moot, as it is a problem not of history but of theology. The early sources on this issue, which should perhaps be our point of reference on the matter, show that both possibilities were conceivable to the early Shi'i community on the morrow of the 11th Imam's death. Thus, among the groups and schisms detailed by the above-cited Dr. Hussain we have one faction that clearly regarded the implications of there being no living successor as being that there could be no Twelfth Imam.

The same sources, however, demonstrate that for a section of the community, the fact that the heirs of the 11th Imam were no longer living did not mean they could not inherit what was after all primarily a spiritual title, in a worldview that saw death as merely the beginning of an everlasting life. Thus we find among the factions that held that there was a Twelfth Imam, two that ascribed the title to a deceased person. On the one hand we have the Muhammadiyya group, who held that the 11th Imam's (deceased) brother Muhammad was the 12th Imam, Ja'far's claim being invalidated by his immorality. On the other hand we have the segment of the Qatiyya group that held that the 11th Imam had a son in his lifetime, named Muhammad, and he was al-Muntazzar (the Awaited One). He died in infancy but would be raised to life with a sword to fill the earth with peace and justice after it had been filled with war and injustice.

From the point of view of Bahá'u'lláh's writings thus far reviewed on the subject of the Twelfth Imam, one could either conclude that He posits the cessation of the Imamate with the death of the 11th Imam and regards the death in infancy of the son of Imam al-Askari as ruling him out of the Imamate; or else that there was a (posthumous) 12th Imam who died in infancy and was the child of Imam al-Askari, and who exercised his Imamate in a spiritual way from non-physical realms. This is not a question to be answered by Logos, and we shall explore its possible answers below.

The challenge of Mythos: plugging into paradox

Were Bahá'u'lláh to stop at historical discussion, we would be wholly entitled to see His message as a demythologising of Shi'i religiosity tout-court, a debunking exercise exposing the belief in the Twelfth Imam as a `papal donation', a pious fabrication indulged in for the greater purpose of the preservation of a religious community in danger of extinction, and later validated and indulged in by the Bab for the higher goal of spiritual edification and eschatological preparation of a Shi'i nation bound up in the narratives of tradition. Final support for this position could be found in what may at first sight appear to be a categorical assertion of the non-existence of the 12th Imam by Baháu'lláh:

"Look with the eye of true discernment. It is now more than a thousand years that all the denominations within the Twelver Branch have embarked to establish the residence of an imagined soul, who did not actually exist [ as.lan mawjuud na-buudeh], with wife and children, all based on imaginative supposition, in fanciful cities, and then they proceeded to bow down in worship before such a being. If any one would deny his existence immediately they would pass the fatwa that the denier be slain. Were they not the worshippers of idle fancy [awhaam] inscribed in the Book of thy Lord the All-Knowing, the All informed? And then after the birth of the Primal Point in the well-known city it became manifest and evident to the discerning that that which was in the hand of those people was all devoid of truth and meaning [ va bee-ma'nee]. In this wise observe ye also all those other matters that pertain unto those people." (Iqtidarat p.244)

This perspective is further emphasised, were further emphasis still needed, in a most direct tablet by `Abdu'l-Bahá:

"Thou hast asked the detail in relation to the 12th Imam. The realisation of this entity has never been in the world of corporeal existence. Rather His holiness the 12th Imam has always been in the realm of the unseen. He had never a realization in the world of physicality rather some of the leaders of the Shi'ihs at that time in the past, merely to protect the weak souls considered it expedient to describe that Personage Who is present in the realm of the unseen in this manner. Their descriptions were such that one could almost imagine that He is in the realm of physicality.

For the world of existence in its totality is one world. "It is only unseen in relation to you and it is only visible in relation to you." All this was their consideration, their thought their expedience...In sum if you refer to all the traditions in this regard and if you exert the utmost careful study you will conclude that this peerless being the 12th Imam has never existed in the world of physical existence." (Muh.Ad.arat Volume 2 page 833)

But such seemingly logocentric conclusions are made complicated by the apparently utterly incompatible fact that elsewhere Bahá'u'lláh validates the reality of the Hidden Imam, albeit recognising its apparent, literal absurdity, no less. While for the historian this very absurd is, quite literally, "the end of the story" (the conclusion of any historiographical narrative seeking to weigh the historical arguments for the existence of the Hidden Imam), in the prophetic voice of Bahá'u'lláh the historian's conclusion is the hermeneut's starting point:

"All that thou hast heard regarding Muhammad the son of Hasan - may the souls of all that are immersed in the oceans of the spirit be offered up for His sake - is true beyond the shadow of a doubt, and we all verily bear allegiance unto Him. But the Imams of the Faith have fixed His abode in the city of Jabulqa, which they have depicted in strange and marvellous signs. To interpret this city according to the literal meaning of the tradition would indeed prove impossible, nor can such a city ever be found. Wert thou to search the uttermost corners of the earth, nay probe its length and breadth for as long as God's eternity hath lasted and His sovereignty will endure, thou wouldst never find a city such as they have described, for the entirety of the earth could neither contain nor encompass it. If thou wouldst lead Me unto this city, I could assuredly lead thee unto this holy Being, Whom the people have conceived according to what they possess and not to that which pertaineth unto Him! Since this is not in thy power, thou hast no recourse but to interpret symbolically the accounts and traditions that have been reported from these luminous souls. And, as such an interpretation is needed for the traditions pertaining to the aforementioned city, so too is it required for this holy Being." (Bahá'u'lláh, Gems of Divine Mysteries, p. 36)

This quote places us in a highly perplexing and paradoxical situation. For Bahá'u'lláh here is arguing simultaneously for the literal absurdity and yet in some way the facticity of specifically "all that thou hast heard", that is, the very narratives whose material, literal basis He elsewhere thoroughly undermines. To the reporters of such accounts and traditions he refers as "these luminous souls". Choosing however to see in the tension between facticity and absurdity not a contradiction but a paradox, Bahá'u'lláh states the logical corollary: "an interpretation is needed". A hermeneutical leap to "reconcile" these apparent opposites simultaneously upheld. We are brought back, if we are earnest in our inquiry, to hayra, the astonishment that at once collapses the edifices of thought and reveals in the rubble the promise of new constructions. "Hayra is not a negative situation - it is the condition in which the seeker finds every intellectual channel blocked, every pathway of reason clashing against the other in contradiction so that it induces in the seeker a state of intensity. This intensity by virtue of its inner tension creates a condition we call hayra. It is a collapse of separation - a kind of "white hole" - which results in gatheredness. That is, the hayra creates a new condition which is its result and that result is a breakthrough into an illumination of the Real."

It may not be unreasonable to consider that through the tension generated by the apparent affirmation of opposites, through the intensity generated by the experience of absurdity in a question of the utmost spiritual importance and immediacy to His audience, Bahá'u'lláh seeks to effect in his audience "a breakthrough into an illumination of the Real." This breakthrough he pursues by translating logos' contradiction into mythos' paradox, lifting the matter from the historian's assays into the hermeneut's probings.

The passage from Bahá'u'lláh declaring that "All that thou hast heard regarding Muhammad the son of Hasan true beyond the shadow of a doubt", whilst at the same time declaring that "To interpret this ...according to the literal meaning of the tradition would indeed prove impossible", mirrors an exegetical technique that Bahá'u'lláh would use to such powerful effect in the Book of Certitude, which Christopher Buck describes as "the appeal to absurdity", and about which he writes:

"One example of a rhetorical-style argument is appeal to absurdity. This kind of demonstration points to a logical or phenomenological implausibility were a literal reading of a given text allowed. Following this, the case is made for a figurative reading. The test for absurdity is an attested procedure of Islamic rhetoric, as instanced in the definition of figuration (majáz) formulated by the rhetorician Ibn Rashiq (d. 1063 C.E. or 1070 C.E.): "Whatever goes beyond the proper meaning in [the] case of each word, without then becoming absolutely absurd, that is majáz, because it admits of the different ways of interpretation: thus the comparison (tashbíh) and 'borrowing' (isti`ara) and other beauties of speech have come to fall under the category of majáz." Here, the figurative reading of a verse must not lead to absurdity. Nor should a literal reading." (C. Buck, Symbol and Secret, p.215)

We find examples of the same line of reasoning in the exchange of ascetic gourmet Mulla Muhammad-Rida and the Mu'tamidu'd-Dawlih:

"In the course of his discussions with Mulla Muhammad-Rida, Prince Farhad Mirza said: 'O Akhund! You cannot push aside so lightly all the traditions and the sayings of the past. We have most reliable and trustworthy traditions and references to the cities Jabulqa and Jabulsa. It is not possible to ignore them all and uphold the belief that Siyyid-i-Bab, a young mercer of Shiraz, is the promised Qá'im.

"Mulla Muhammad-Rida replied: 'Your Royal Highness! You yourself have written a book on geography. If such a city exists, a city which is claimed to have 70,000 gates, and according to others 100,000, please tell me in which part of the world you have placed it in your geography; show me where in your book you have referred to it and described it; then I shall accept all your arguments.' This retort went home and incensed the prince." (H. M. Balyuzi, Eminent Bahá'ís in the Time of Bahá'u'lláh, p.100-101)

The passage in Gems of Divine Mysteries makes clear that the appeal to absurdity so incisively used by Bahá'u'lláh and His disciples does not entail a repudiation, as might have been preliminarily surmised, of the truths and realities alluded to in a coded way in the story of the Twelfth Imam's occultation; but rather the rejection of the literalist distortion of its mythos. Taking as its starting point a profound and mythopoetic sacred history, a literalist reading of the Twelfth Imam's early life, occultation, communication, return, and eventual military triumph after a thousand years' miraculous biological preservation, does violence to the sacred meanings of the narrative by reducing them to the physical. Such literalist readings bend the mythos of the occultation to impossible other-worldly expectations with very worldly consequences: they freeze the eschaton in eternity and implicitly defend the immutability of the social order in time, postponing His advent ad-infinitum, whilst simultaneously maintaining the centrality of the Shi'i ulama, His worldly deputies, in the religious, social and political cosmos of Iran. Even the eschaton itself, Bahá'u'lláh avers, is construed by His contemporaries among the clerical class as changing nothing, except to consolidate the Sharia or religious law which the `Ulama preside over!

"the people of the Qur'an do not by any means accept that a new Shari'ah will be revealed after the Qur'an and they further assert that there is a Soul who has been born a 1,000 years previously, Whose mother is the Lady Narjis Khatun, and that this Person is now present in Jabulqa and Jabulsa and that He is awaiting divine permission so that when He appears He will promulgate the Shari'ah of the Messenger of God: in other words, this same dispensation that is present today. They have further provided signs all of which if they were to be assembled would constitute a big book." (Kitab e badii P 110)

Bahá'u'lláh's exegesis of the Twelfth Imam may thus be said to be, as attested by the very explicit passage in Gems of Divine Mysteries, theologically and hermeneutically to support the reality of the Twelfth Imam and of His occultation, but to subvert the Shi'i leadership's construction of the same. As Bahá'u'lláh Himself exclaims:

"Would that the Ulama would recognise the consequences of their deeds and words! But pride has so veiled these people that they have, because of the love for their own things, turned away from that which is of God. If one should ponder deeply on this and if one should think of that which they have said and are still saying one would conclude that all this is an emanation from the source of vain imaginings and idle fancies. For 1,200 years or more they have been uttering the mention of the Qa'im and the traditions and narratives about Him without apprehending a letter of the sign of His advent."

Hence for Bahá'u'lláh the problem lies not in belief in the historicity and spiritual reality of the Twelfth Imam, but rather in belief in the historicity and reality of His physical occultation and the literal reading of the signs of His advent. Thus He speaks of "this holy Being, Whom the people have conceived according to what they possess and not to that which pertaineth unto Him!" It is not that conceiving of Him was misplaced, but rather the fault lies in having conceived of Him instrumentally, "according to what they possess", "because of the love of their own things".

When Bahá'u'lláh speaks of a Twelfth Imam "who did not actually exist", He is specifically referring to "an imagined soul ...with wife and children, all based on imaginative supposition, in fanciful cities". Likewise `Abdu'l-Bahá, in stating that "The realisation of this entity has never been in the world of corporeal existence", is referring to the entity described in the Occultation hadith in such wise as to "protect the weak souls" through "descriptions... such that one could almost imagine that He is in the realm of physicality." The impossibility of a corporeal reality to the description of the Hidden Imam does not equate in `Abdu'l-Bahá's passage to the irreality of the Being thus described, who is in the selfsame passage stated to exist in the realm of the Unseen.

Mythos, apparently banished uncompromisingly from the picture, has irrupted once more into the narrative, and "All that thou hast heard regarding Muhammad the son of Hasan" is, after all, "true beyond the shadow of a doubt." We find it is too easy to say, as has been claimed, that Bahá'u'lláh straightforwardly denies the existence of the 12th Imam, and Bahá'u'lláh's hermeneutic of reconciliation makes it most difficult to resolve the conflict between logos and mythos by simply choosing one or the other as a privileged lens. Instead we must, as ever, "repeat the gaze" and make friends with paradox.

The Occultation Narratives: Mythos Returned

We have seen that the emphatic and unequivocal subvertion of the historical facticity of the Occultation, rather than implying for Bahá'u'lláh, in common with most modern historians, the dismissal of the Occultation narratives as so many expedient fantasies, locates those very narratives in a higher level of reality, and hence of meaning, than that of historical time and material existence, so that, as mythos, they are said to capture and allude to fundamental truths "beyond the shadow of a doubt". We face a reversed metaphor, where the physical seems to occupy a lower degree of reality and functions in fact as a metaphor for spiritual reality which, so much more fully, is.

To grasp such a perspective, it is crucial to understand that the real, in Bahá'u'lláh's theology, is not confined to the physical world, which is in fact but one small layer of what Bahá'u'lláh conceives as reality (haqiqat).

"Verily I say, the creation of God embraceth worlds besides this world, and creatures apart from these creatures. In each of these worlds He hath ordained things which none can search except Himself, the All-Searching, the All-Wise." (Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 152)

As Jean Mark Lepain expounds:

"The Bahá'í Writings distinguish between creation (khalq) and the universe. In fact, Bahá'u'llah speaks rather of `world' (`alam), specifying that our material world is but one particular case within creation, which is essentially composed of spiritual worlds."[53]

And if reality is not confined to the physical, on which so much of our perception of reality is grounded, it is not surprising that it should likewise transcend, though not by-pass, our rationality. To return to Lepain's important philosophical analysis:

"Hereby lies one of the fundamental thesis of the Bahá'í episteme: the universe is but partially accessible to reason. Not only can reason not grasp the ultimate reality of the cosmos, but there exists, beyond the cosmos, a spiritual universe that eludes it in the greatest measure. The world is but partially intelligible:

`How great the multitude of truths which the garment of words can never contain! How vast the number of such verities as no expression can adequately describe, whose significance can never be unfolded, and to which not even the remotest allusions can be made!' (Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 176)

"Bahá'u'lláh however takes care not to fall into the position of solipsism. To affirm that rational language cannot grasp the ultimate reality of the universe does not mean that the latter is bereft of meaning and purpose, but that these partially escape man. To arrive at this meaning presupposes a going beyond reason, a spiritual knowledge, hence a gnosis.

"We reencounter here the problem posed by any attempt to communicate a mystical experience: How to express in words that which in its essence is ineffable?"[54]

Bahá'u'lláh and `Abdu'l-Bahá's appropriation of the Occultation narratives takes place precisely at this level, as mytho-poetic expressions of a mystical, abstruse reality, the absconditus of the Prophetic spirit, the realm where the names and attributes of the protagonists of the world's sacred narratives find their source and unity. The language used consists, in the words of `Abdu'l-Bahá, of "allusions, metaphors, abstruse language, and interpretations", the symbolism of which is so subtle, we are told, and so material, that "one could almost imagine that He is in the realm of physicality. For the world of existence in its totality is one world. "It is only unseen in relation to you and it is only visible in relation to you"."

This last sentence stresses the spiritual rationale and justification behind the historically discredited narratives. The world of existence, which for Shi'is as for Bahá'ís is far more extended than the corporeal world, is one world: hence to say that the Imam lived in Jabulqa and Jabulsa, and describe those cities in material terms without specifying that they were not in fact material locations, is not tantamount to the absence of such cities, but rather the absence of the hermeneutical key that would apprehend their reality in the appropriate, spiritual, realm of existence. This kind of veiled language, lacking even the indications that it is veiled, discussing the subject as if dealing with purely physical matters without any metaphorical content whatever is indeed a device common throughout scripture and detected long before by careful readers.[55] We have evidence to suggest that both Bahá'u'lláh and `Abdu'l-Bahá found it useful to resort to the same unsual and indeed perplexing device:

To both of these reported conversations could be applied `Abdu'l-Bahá's dictum about the Occultation narratives: "one could almost imagine" that they were speaking about places "in the realm of physicality" - their interlocutors evidently did. Nor did Bahá'u'lláh or `Abdu'l-Bahá supply the hermeneutical key that would have cleared away the confusion and informed them of the fact that they were referring to metaphorical locations. The exchange and the uncomprehending reaction of Their audience vividly recalls Jesus' own description of His parables:

"And his disciples asked him, saying, What might this parable be? And he said, Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God: but to others in parables; that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand." (Luke 8:9-10)

Nor should Bahá'u'lláh's reading of physical descriptions as designating largely ineffable spiritual conditions surprise one familiar with Bahá'u'lláh's hermeneutical vision. `Abdu'l-Bahá's interpretations make this issue crystal clear:

"human knowledge is of two kinds. One is the knowledge of things perceptible to the senses — that is to say, things which the eye, or ear, or smell, or taste, or touch can perceive, which are called objective or sensible.... The other kind of human knowledge is intellectual — that is to say, it is a reality of the intellect; it has no outward form and no place and is not perceptible to the senses...

So love is a mental reality and not sensible; for this reality the ear does not hear, the eye does not see, the smell does not perceive, the taste does not discern, the touch does not feel.

"...In explaining these intellectual realities, one is obliged to express them by sensible figures because in exterior existence there is nothing that is not material. Therefore, to explain the reality of the spirit — its condition, its station — one is obliged to give explanations under the forms of sensible things because in the external world all that exists is sensible... So the symbol of knowledge is light, and of ignorance, darkness; but reflect, is knowledge sensible light, or ignorance sensible darkness? No, they are merely symbols... Now, that light of knowledge, and that darkness of ignorance, are intellectual realities, not sensible ones; but when we seek for explanations in the external world, we are obliged to give them a sensible form." (Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, pp. 83-85)

The above passage highlights the link between our concepts of reality and our uses of language, and implies that language, like reality, or rather because of reality, is perforce equivocal, since we must use words with designated meanings to signify altogether unrelated, abstract, meanings (such as using light to mean or rather to evoke knowledge), and what is more, as the wealth of assertions of ineffability implies, language may even b used to generate meaning beyond language. In scripture, from Bahá'u'lláh's perspective, language is not merely a tool for verbal communication, but a bridge to a gnosis that transcends discursive rationality.

In sacred narratives, when the demarcation between symbol and reality is not made clear, and in a context of mytho-centric societies in which literal readings are not considered in the light of logos but accepted at face value, the opacity of the symbolism evidently increases, as in the case of the Twelfth Imam, where the associated descriptions are such that as `Abdu'l-Bahá states "one could almost imagine that He is in the realm of physicality".

So who is, for Bahá'u'lláh, the Twelfth Imam, if not a child born in the 3rd Islamic century who grew up, married and had children whilst in hiding and is still alive and in hiding ten centuries later? How can the historical reality of the occultation be denied while the narratives that recount it are simultaneously upheld? If the answer is, as has been intimated, figurative, then what is the reality to which the narratives allude? What does it mean, in Bahá'u'lláh's writings, to conceive of "Muhammad the son of Hasan" according "to that which pertaineth unto Him", and not "according to what [the people] possess"? (Gems of Divine Mysteries, op. cit)

Our first intimation comes from the Gems of Divine Mysteries:

"Know then that, inasmuch as all the Prophets are but one and the same soul, spirit, name, and attribute, thou must likewise see them all as bearing the name Muhammad and as being the son of Hasan, as having appeared from the Jabulqa of God's power and from the Jabulsa of His mercy. For by Jabulqa is meant none other than the treasure-houses of eternity in the all-highest heaven and the cities of the unseen in the supernal realm. We bear witness that Muhammad the son of Hasan was indeed in Jabulqa and appeared therefrom. Likewise, He Whom God shall make manifest abideth in that city until such time as God will have established Him upon the seat of His sovereignty. We, verily, acknowledge this truth and bear allegiance unto each and every one of them. We have chosen here to be brief in our elucidation of the meanings of Jabulqa, but if thou be of them that truly believe, thou shalt indeed comprehend all the true meanings of the mysteries enshrined within these Tablets.

"But as to Him Who appeared in the year sixty [the Báb], He standeth in need of neither transformation nor interpretation, for His name was Muhammad, and He was a descendant of the Imams of the Faith. Thus it can be truly said of Him that He was the son of Hasan, as is undoubtedly clear and evident unto thine eminence. Nay, He it is Who fashioned that name and created it for Himself, were ye to observe with the eye of God."[56]

Such assertions, self-evidently, cannot be answered or rejected by the exercise of historical reason. It is not a matter of weighing sources and establishing whether or not Hasan al-Askari had a child, and if yes whether he survived his father. Bahá'u'lláh's validation of historical reason in no way exhausts the truth content or spiritual facticity of the Occultation narratives, which in fact wholly elude the historian's assays, which touch merely on one layer of reality, nor yet the most important or most fully real from Bahá'u'lláh's standpoint. It is rather a question of hermeneutics and spiritual perspective.

The challenge here, on the one hand, is that the Occultation narratives, according to Bahá'u'lláh, are describing intellectual realities altogether abstruse and inaccessible, far more so than "love"

or "knowledge", which in some measure pertain to our daily experience. Rather they postulate, in Bahá'u'lláh's reading of them, a Being and spiritual condition that far exceeds our capacity of comprehension and has almost no counterpart in our own consciousness, let alone in the material world to which we turn for bridges to evocation. On the other hand, the symbolism, framed already a thousand years ago, draws deep on images and metaphors that are closer to our subconscious mind than our conscious experience, but which precisely for that reason tap wells of motivation that discursive thought is powerless to reach. As Armstrong reminds us:

"The mythos of a society ...was also rooted in what we would call the unconscious mind... When people told stories about heroes who descended into the underworld, struggled through labyrinths, or fought with monsters, they were bringing to light the obscure regions of the subconscious realm, which is not accessible to purely rational investigation, but which has a profound effect upon our experience and behavior."[57]

This type of language is not "evident", not immediately accessible, and is therefore subject to profound espistemic equivocation. Such language in sacred narratives Bahá'u'lláh calls "veiled and concealed", and states that "In such utterances, the literal meaning, as generally understood by the people, is not what hath been intended... These things We mention only that the people may not be dismayed because of certain traditions and utterances, which have not yet been literally fulfilled, that they may rather attribute their perplexity to their own lack of understanding, and not to the non-fulfilment of the promises in the traditions." (Bahá'u'lláh, The Kitab-i-Iqan, p. 255)

From this perspective may be understood the Bahá'í re-construction of the mythos of the 12th Imám, and may even illustrate a more general approach to religious eschatology present in Bahá'í scripture.

Three layers of meaning and hermeneutical reconciliation

Alessandro Bausani, following implicitly on a long tradition of hermeneutics stretching back to Philo of Alexandria, formulated a hermeneutical model that may be of assistance in addressing this question.

Bausani's 3 Level Interpretation:

In Bausani's penetrating observation we see three layers of meaning, which we could designate evident, metaphysical, and kerygmatic, each more opaque than the previous one. The evident layer of meaning is rooted in the literal or literary content of a passage or concept and in historical time; the metaphysical layer relates to metaphysical, abstract concepts and to eternity beyond time; and the kerygmatic layer relates to the Person and claims of Bahá'u'lláh or the Báb and inhabits what the historian of millennialism Robert Landes designates as "millennial time",[58] a `time of fulfilment' or fulfilled eschatology dynamically integrating historical and metahistorical time.

It is suggested that we can make sense of the Occultation narratives and their interpretation in the Bábí-Bahá'í writings in terms of these three hermeneutical layers.

This is perhaps best grasped if we consider first the more familiar parallel of the significance of Jesus in Bahá'í theology. In the first, or evident layer of meaning, Jesus refers specifically to a historical figure, a Manifestation of God that appeared some two millennia ago and died approximately thirty years after His birth.[59] In the second, metaphysical layer, the historical Jesus was the individuation of a prophetic reality that dwells in all Manifestations of God, as Bahá'u'lláh writes in the Iqan:

"As to the matter of names, Muhammad, Himself, declared: "I am Jesus." ... In this sense, neither the person of Jesus nor His writings hath differed from that of Muhammad and of His holy Book, inasmuch as both have championed the Cause of God, uttered His praise, and revealed His commandments. Thus it is that Jesus, Himself, declared: "I go away and come again unto you." Consider the sun. Were it to say now, "I am the sun of yesterday," it would speak the truth. And should it, bearing the sequence of time in mind, claim to be other than that sun, it still would speak the truth... Conceive accordingly the distinction, variation, and unity characteristic of the various Manifestations of holiness, that thou mayest comprehend the allusions made by the Creator of all names and attributes to the mysteries of distinction and unity, and discover the answer to thy question as to why that everlasting Beauty should have, at sundry times, called Himself by different names and titles" (Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 21)

Finally, on the anagogical, kerygmatic level, Jesus is Bahá'u'lláh Himself, now, returned in the fulness of time to fulfil all that He Himself had promised 2000 years ago in the gospels, so that Bahá'u'lláh chastises the Christian monarchs precisely on account of their making a distinction between Jesus and His own person:

"O kings of Christendom! Heard ye not the saying of Jesus, the Spirit of God, "I go away, and come again unto you"? Wherefore, then, did ye fail, when He did come again unto you in the clouds of heaven, to draw nigh unto Him, that ye might behold His face, and be of them that attained His Presence?" (Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 246)

Likewise, it is suggested that, at one level, Muhammad, son of Hasan, denotes in Bahá'í theology a historical entity, a physical child who died in infancy before he could materially exercise his imamate. On the one hand, we have Bahá'u'lláh's assertion that Ja'far spoke the truth in saying that the 11th Imam had a child who died in infancy previous to his own passing. He does not give his name, but `Abdu'l-Bahá reports that:

"in the texts of the traditions of the Holy Imams, to outward seeming, there is disagreement and conflict, for example in some h.adith the person of Muh.ammad the son of H.asan [al-`Askari], peace be upon Him, is considered to be the Promised Qa'im, and in another h.adith and another place the death of Muh.ammad the son of H.asan [al-`Askari], peace be upon Him and the birth in the Last Day of the Promised Qa'im are both affirmed."

`Abdu'l-Bahá refers to the "disagreement and conflict" in these two narratives as "outward seeming", implying that they are in fact in harmony, and adduces His own interpretation, which we shall review below, "in order to achieve agreement between these two types of h.adith" (be jahat e tawaafoq ebayn e do hadith). From this, it can be deduced that `Abdu'l-Bahá regards "the death of Muh.ammad the son of H.asan" as factual, albeit not incompatible with regarding him as the Qa'im. Such a surmise resonates strongly with Bahá'u'lláh's own pronouncements on the subject. From the above one would be justified in concluding that Bahá'ís uphold the historicity of Muhammad, son of Imam Hasan al-Askari, all the while holding that, having died in infancy, his imamate refers to a purely spiritual reality that was never exercised in corporeal fashion. Thus it would be accurate, in maintaining the historicity of an heir to the 11th Imam who nonetheless only inherited his mantle posthumously, to state with `Abdu'l-Bahá, that "The realisation of this entity has never been in the world of corporeal existence. Rather His holiness the 12th Imam has always been in the realm of the unseen... this peerless being the 12th Imam has never existed in the world of physical existence." In other words, while Muhammad, son of Hasan al-Askari did exist in the world of physical existence, his imamate was realised only in the realm of the Kingdom, subsequent to his physical death. It is this reality that the Occultation narratives seek symbolically to convey. On the first, evident layer of meaning then, the 12th Imám refers to a historical child that very briefly lived and died some 11 centuries ago.

Which takes us to the second, metaphysical layer of meaning, which in the Gems of Divine Mysteries shows a near identical parallel to the metaphysical interpretation of Jesus: in this reading the Twelfth Imam denotes the Prophetic "soul, spirit, name, and attribute" which is made manifest in each dispensation.

"Know then that, inasmuch as all the Prophets are but one and the same soul, spirit, name, and attribute, thou must likewise see them all as bearing the name Muhammad and as being the son of Hasan, as having appeared from the Jabulqa of God's power and from the Jabulsa of His mercy."

The mysterious cities of Jabulqa and Jabulsa here denote the realms of God's power and mercy whence descends and subsists the Prophetic spirit, "the all-highest heaven and the cities of the unseen in the supernal realm." The Twelfth Imam dwelt, we are told, in the "treasure-houses of eternity" (Cf. Qur'an 15:21), where Him Whom God shall make manifest still dwells, even as, from Bahá'u'lláh's perspective, the latter was His own self.

This interpretation is further expounded by `Abdu'l-Bahá in a tablet to Sadru's Sudur, an early believer remembered most particularly for his service in systematically training teachers of the Bahá'í Faith.

"O S.udur! ...As to thy question in regard to the Twelfth Imam. ...there is no other alternative for any soul but to attain certitude [tayaqqun] in this matter, namely: that the Twelfth Imam, the Promised Qa'im was present spiritually [=Ruuh. an] in the Realm of Malakuut [=h.ayyiz e malakuut], and in the Day of His Appearance [Zuhúr], He became visible in the corporeal realm [=jism]. And with this individuation in body He did become a second Person [= be een tajassum shakhs. e thaani gasht]. "And there is not a thing but its (sources and) treasures (inexhaustible) are with Us; but We only send down thereof in due and ascertainable measures." [Qur'an 15:21] Thus every thing that appears in the realm of the earthly kingdom [=mulk] has, in priority, been in the Realm of Malakuut [=h.ayyiz e malakuut] and possesses the principle of existence [h.ukm e wujuud]."

Linking this to the previous passage, it becomes clear that while the evident layer of meaning links the 12th Imám to Imám al-Askari's child who died during al-Askari's imamate, the metaphysical layer of meaning sees this as simply the individuation of a primary reality, the Prophetic Spirit variously said to dwell "in the Unseen realm", "in the Realm of Malakut", "the Jabulqa of God's power and from the Jabulsa of His mercy", ""the all-highest heaven and the cities of the unseen in the supernal realm", the "treasure-houses of eternity". This is reminiscent of Suhrawardi's "eighth clime" the land of na kuja abad (no-where), in which he cited Jabulqa and Jabulsa. It becomes apparent that we are using once more language to transcend itself, rationality to awaken gnosis, the physical to symbolise the abstract and the abstract to evoke the ineffable.

But Bahá'u'lláh does not stay in such realms of pure abstraction, but enters into a third, kerygmatic, layer of meaning and re-historicises the abstract prophetic principle described above in the very concrete Person of Siyyid `Alí Muhammad, the Báb. In the Gems of Divine Mysteries the name and paternity of the 12th Imám in the first, evident, layer of meaning, Muhammad son of Hasan al-Askari, is seen to prefigure and designate the name and lineage of the Báb Himself, who was named Muhammad and, being a descendant of the Prophet, could be said to be "the Son of Hasan". Likewise, `Abdu'l-Bahá describes how the abstract metaphysical entity of the secod layer of meaning "became visible in the corporeal realm [=jism]. And with this individuation in body He did become a second Person", namely, the Báb.

In this kerygmatic layer logos and mythos co-exist: logos is able to uphold a seeming demythologisation of the Occultation narratives, denying altogeher their literal facticity in both historical and eschatological terms, whilst mythos is able to uphold their metaphysical and eschatological facticity through metaphorical interpretation. The union of the historical and the metaphysical takes place in the kerygmatic, in the proclamation of the Báb to be, in very truth, the return of the 12th Imám, which is upheld by Bahá'u'lláh and `Abdu'l-Bahá as the "individuation", once more, of the prophetic spirit, and the manifestation in the human flesh and bones of a young mercer of Shiráz of the transcendent, ineffable reality of that Being that dwelt in the Unseen. This individuation represents the return of the attributes ascribed to the historical child of Imám al-Askari, including His name, lineage, and above all, divine authority and mandate, which in the case of the short lived child was never realized in this world, and in the case of the Báb is held by Bahá'u'lláh to have been manifested in the Báb's short and troubled ministry.

It should be apparent that to describe Bahá'u'lláh and `Abdu'l-Bahá's stance on the 12th Imám as a demytholisation would therefore be to express but half a truth. If anything, the 12th Imám of the Bahá'í writings is an even more mythical, more cosmic, more elevated and encompassing entity than the traditional Shi'i saviour, and is certainly far from being either non-existent or even a pure abstraction — being incarnated in an Individual (the Báb) endowed with a mythical charge of archetypal proportions: the Qá'im, the King of the Messengers, the Primal Point — where a demythologised vision would see only a youth of mystical bent who acted as a catalyst for popular protest and religious fervour at the head of a failed millenial movement in Qajar Irán. Such, needless to say, is not the vision of the Báb adduced by Bahá'u'lláh. Rather than speak of a demythologisation of the 12th Imám then, we might therefore more accurately speak of a re-mythologisation that integrates historical reason and gnosis, mythos and logos, in a dominating kerygma or proclamation which provides Bahá'u'lláh's hermeneutical master-key, a myth of fulfilment enacted in historical reality merging past prophecy and future vision in a present invitation to embrace the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh as the advent of the Promise of all ages.


    [1] I am very grateful to my fellow scholars for their commentary and debate in electronic fora that has informed this paper. In particular this paper would not have been written without the assiduous labours of Dr. Khazeh Fananapazir in tracking down and translating the bulk of the citations of the Bahá'í writings on the 12th Imám, translations which, unless otherwise acknowledged, are by Dr. Fananapazir, whose kind permission to use them is gratefully acknowledged. The interpretation of the material, with any errors it might contain, is all my own.

    [2] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Walter Kaufmann (trans.), Random House, New York, 1974, section 125

    [3] Appadurai

    [4] Cf. Robertson,pp.125-126; Kalb, p.3

    [5] Italo Calvino, "La Mirada del arqueólogo", in Punto y Aparte: Ensayos sobre Literatura y Sociedad, Gabriela Sánchez Ferlosio (translator), Tusquets Editores, Barcelona, 1995.

    [6] Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 45


    [8] Bahá'u'lláh, The Seven Valleys, p. 5

    [9] The Universal House of Justice, To the World's Religious Leaders, April 2002, p. 2

    [10] Kalb, expounding Appadurai, p.8

    [11] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Walter Kaufmann (trans.), Random House, New York, 1974, section 125

    [12] Cf. Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes

    [13] Cf. Alain Touraine

    [14] Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is Come, p. 112

    [15] Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 114

    [16] Shoghi Effendi "Summary Statement - 1947, Special UN Committee on Palestine"

    [17] Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p. 100

    [18] Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 354. 1800 students and 180 professors, not to speak of other civic leaders and prominent people constituted the audience of what `Abdu'l-Bahá's chronicler described as "one of the most significant days." (Cf. Mahmud's Diary)...

    [19] Bahá'u'lláh, Prayers and Meditations by Bahá'u'lláh, p. 226

    [20] Fernando Savater

    [21] Cf. Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 258

    [22] Abdu'l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Bahá, p. 263

    [23] Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, Four on an Island, George Ronald, Oxford, 1983, p. 109

    [24] For some approaches to Bahá'í exegetical reconcieliation see Khazeh + Seena, Seena; Chris Buck; Micael Sours; etc.

    [25] Bahá'u'lláh, The Seven Valleys, p. 29

    [26] Cited by the Universal House of Justice in "Issues Concerning Community Functioning", Feb 7 1993

    [27] pp.112-113

    [28] Emmanuel Kant,

    [29] On equipollence and the Greek sceptics see...

    [30] Michel de Montaigne,

    [31] p.116

    [32] On the Bab's claims to Qa'imiyyat see, Amanat...; McEoin...; etc

    [33] Cf Nabil, GPB, MacEoin

    [34] Sa'ad b. `Abd Allah al-Ash'ari al-Qummi (d. 299/911), Kitab al-Maqalat wa-l-Firaq, ed. by M. J. Mashkur, Tehran, 1963; al-Hasan b. Musa al- Nawbakhti, (d. Before 310/922), Firaq al-Shi'a, ed. by Ritter, Leipzig, 1931, and Najaf, 1963; Muhammad b. Ya'qub al-Kulayni, (d. 329/941), al-kafi fi `Ilm al-Din, 6 vols. Tehran, 1381/1961; `'Ali b. Al-Hasan Al- Mas'udi (d. 346/957), Muruj al-Dhahab wa Ma'adin al Jawhar fi al-Tarikh, 9 vols, Paris, 1961-76; Muhammad b. `Ali b. al-Husayn b. Babwayh al-Saduq (d. 381/991), Kamal al-Din wa-Tamam al-Ni'ma, Tehran, 1378/1958, and Tehran, 1395/1975; Muhammmad b. Muhammad b. Al-Nu'man al-Mufid (d. 413/1022), al-Irshad, Najaf, 1392/1972; Muhammad b. al-Hasan al-Tusi (d. 460/1067), al-Ghayba, Tabriz, 1322/1904.

    [35] For critical historical accounts see M. A. Amir-Moezzi, Le guide divin dans le Shi`sme originel aux sources de l' eÇsoterisme en Islam, Paris, 1992; S. A. Arjomand, "Crisis of the Imamate and the Institution of Occultation in Twelver Shi'ism: A Sociohistorical Perspective," IJMES 28/4, 1996a, pp. 491-515; Idem, "The Consolation of Theology. The Shi`ite Doctrine of Occultation and the Transition from Chiliasm to Law," Journal of Religion, 76/4, 1996b, pp. 548-71; Idem, "Imam Absconditus and the Beginnings of a Theology of Occultation. Imami Shi`ism around 900 CE/280-290 A.H.," JAOS 117/1, 1997, pp. 1-12; J. M. Hussain, The Occulation of the Twelfth Imam. A Historical Background, Muhammadiyya Trust, London, 1982; E. Kohlberg, "From Imamya to Ithna@-`ashariyya," BSO(A)S 39, 1976, 521-34; H. Modarressi, Crisis and Consolidation in the Formative Period of Shi`ite Islam, Princeton, N. J., 1993

    [36] Majlisi Insert

    [37] On the identity of the 12th Imam's mother see Jassim Hussain, The Occultation of the Twelfth imam, A Historical Background, pp. 64-66

    [38] Cff. Ebn Babawayh, p. 35, n. 6-7; Shaikh Mofid, p. 284, translated by S.A. Arjomand in his entry on "Ghayba" for the Encyclopaedia Iranica.

    [39] On the Christian Kerygma and the evolution of Christianity see...

    [40] See E. Peters, Greek Philosophical Terms: A Historical Lexicon (NYU, 1967). For a sophisticated treatment of the intellectual history of mythos and logos from Xenophanes to our own time, see Phillip Stambovsky, Myth and the Limits of Reason, Value Inquiry Book Series, VIII, GA, Amsterdam/Atlanta, 1996.

    [41] See below

    [42] Marta Beatriz Guberman, "El proceso de la cura: una propuesta a partir de la integración "mythos - logos", Interpsiquis, 2003. Also at

    [43] Cf. Stephen Lambden, unpublished paper, "The B#257;b#299;-Bah#257;#299; Demythologization of Sh#299;`#299; messianism: On the question of the reality of the twelfth Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, the alleged son of the 11th Imam, #7716;asan al-Askar#299; (d. 260/874) and Narjis Khanum."

    [44] See John Richard Richards The Religion of the Bahá'ís, SPCK: London, 1932/New York: Macmillan, 1934, cited by Lambden, ibid.

    [45] H.M. Balyuzi, Muhammad and the Course of Islam, p. 255-257

    [46] ibid

    [47] Amir-Moezzi, The Divine Guide in Early Shi'ism, p. 111.

    [48] Ibid. p.215

    [49] Cf. Bayan-I Farsi, esp. 3.7; 3.10; 6.19; see also 1.1, 1.16-19, 2.4.

    [50] Henry Corbin, "Pour une morphologie de la spiritualité Shí`ite", Eranos Jahrbuch, vol. XXIX (1960), pp.85-86.

    [51] Ma'idih ye Asmani Volume 7 page 186

    [52] The Occultation of the 12th Imam: A Historical Background*, Muhammadi Trust, 1982

    [53] Jean-Marc Lepain, L'esprit antropique: Le problËme métaphysique de l'intelligibilité et de la rationalité du monde dans la pensée de Bahá'u'lláh, section 2.1

    [54] Jean-Marc Lepain, Archéologie du royaume de dieu, section 7.2

    [55] See for merely one discussion of biblical examples chapter 8 of St John of the Cross' Ascent of Mount Carmel

    [56] Bahá'u'lláh, Gems of Divine Mysteries, p. 37-38

    [57] Karen Armstrong, op.cit.

    [58] See ...

    [59] See Cole.

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