Baha’is, Superstitionism and the Iranian Identity (Part 2)

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Editor’s Note:  The first part of this brilliant essay was published here.  The following is the second and final portion of this essay.

By Aram Anahid

The Shi’ite story of occultation is not the only mystifying singularity within the vast universe of Islamic thought.  Islamic thinkers have long been challenged by the many seemingly irrational, or nonrational, stories that are found in the Qur’an and hadith.  Anecdotal accounts of the bodily resurrection of the dead on the Day of Judgment, of heaven and hell, of genies and angels, all proved hard to accept, and even harder to justify, from within the fast-expanding realm of Islamic thought.  It was, probably, Abu Nasr Farabi who in the 10th century AD first opened the door to a better understanding of these accounts.  Farabi contrasted the obviously narrative style of religious texts with the expository structure of philosophical writings.  He argued that philosophers and prophets choose two different channels to reach the active intellect: the former ascend via speculative thought, the latter soar on the wings of imagination.[2]  Farabi’s argument implicitly explained the apparent differences between seemingly inexplicable religious accounts and the more down-to-earth philosophical arguments: while philosophical truth was expressed in the form of statements about purely intellectual abstract concepts, religious truth was conveyed via stories about “imaginal” (but not imaginary) nonmaterial beings.

A century later, and in the course of a most interesting essay on “The Criterion of Distinction between Islam and Clandestine Unbelief” (Fayasl al-tafriqa bayn al-Islam wa-l-zandaqa), Abu Hamid Muhammad Ghazali reasoned that while any argument refuting the teachings of the Shari’ah amounted to kufr (blasphemy), a believer had every right to assume that in one instance or another the Shari’ah was speaking, not about physical entities, but of imaginal beings, or wujud khayali.[3]  For someone like Ghazali, at least when it came to the discovery of the hidden meanings of the Qur’an, the imagination of Islamic mystics stood high above the intellect of philosophers.  Thus, to him the realm of imagination, or the imaginal world, was the primary domain wherein divine truths found symbolic expression.

After Ghazali, it was the turn of Suhrawardi[4] and Ibn Arabi[5] to investigate the mysteries of the realm of imagination.  These two 12th century thinkers expounded the concept of “autonomous imagination.”  Autonomous imagination, or khayal munfasil, was self-subsistent, existing independently of the imagining subject.  It was the existence of this realm of autonomous imagination that made it possible for a group of people (particularly a religious community) to collectively perceive imaginal entities, or in other words, to share imaginations.  Suhrawardi was probably the first thinker who used the terms Hurqalya to refer to the heavens of this world and of Jabarsa and Jabalqa (to which Islamic traditions had earlier alluded[6]) as cities situated, not in our material world, but within the precincts of the imaginal world.

Four centuries later, the concept of the imaginal world and its nonmaterial but sensible [capable of being sensed] entities was embraced by the Iranian Shi’ite philosophers of Maktab-e Isfahan, or School of Isfahan.  Even before Shaykh Ahmad Ahsai, Mulla Sadra chose to suggest that on the Day of Judgment the dead would rise with their subtle imaginal (or according to Mulla Sadra, mithali) bodies.  It was, however, Shaykh Ahmad who, almost a thousand years after the death of the 11th Shi’ite Imam, used the concept of hurqalya, not just to explain the nature of the Prophet’s mi’raj (night journey), or of heaven and hell, but most importantly, to provide a new understanding of the story of occultation.  The Shaykh declared that the Hidden Imam and His companions lived, not in the physical world, but in the cities of Jabulqa and Jabulsa,[7] thus indicating that the Shi’ite beliefs regarding the birth, early life, Minor Occultation, and finally Major Occultation of the Imam pertained to the realm of the imaginal.  Together with his renowned successor, Siyyid Kazim Rashti, Shaykh Ahmad thus championed a completely new approach to Shi’a beliefs.

Ten centuries had gone by for Shi’a Islam to arrive at the threshold of an altogether new understanding of its history.  Now, at last, part of the Shi’ite community had developed the capacity to revisit the past, to discover that the defining moment in the history of Shi’ite Islam had taken place in the collective imagination of the Shi’a community, and to decide that it was time to advance towards a new understanding of the symbolic meaning of long-cherished religious beliefs and practices.  

A 25-year-old youth from Shiraz was destined to lead this group towards its new consciousness and its new identity. Siyyid ‘Ali Muhammad the Bab, who once attended Siyyid Kazim’s classes, was neither a thousand years old, nor did His authority rested on His sword.  He had, however, the power to capture the hearts of His followers and to open their eyes to a totally new understanding of existence, of the meaning of life and of religious truth.  He taught that every religion reaches its zenith of perfection as it provides for the birth of a new revelation, argued that the stories of the Day of Resurrection referred to the birth of a new religious worldview and a totally new understanding of reality, showed that accounts of the rising of the dead from their graves pertained to the spiritual rebirth of a people, and declared that heaven and hell were the conditions of spiritual nearness to or distance from God.  

Had Iranian society, particularly the body of Shi’ite ‘ulama, had the capacity to accommodate His teachings, maybe this new understanding would now be an integral part of Iranian identity – maybe today there would be no Shi’a-Babi dichotomy.  Unfortunately, the twin pillars of power in 19th century Iran – the Shi’ite ‘ulama and the Qajar rulers – chose to reward the Bab, and everyone who cherished His teachings, with enmity, hatred, punishment, and death.  Sixteen decades later, that enmity and hatred still claims, almost every day, new victims.

Every year, on the 15th day of the month of Sha‘ban, according to the Islamic lunar calendar, Iran cheerfully celebrates the birth of the 12th Imam and prays for His imminent return.  Thirteen days later, on the 28th of Sha‘ban, tens of thousands of Iranians hold small gatherings all around the country, to commemorate the martyrdom of a young man who taught them once that they could be born anew and achieve a new identity, without refuting and recanting their past, as in His words:

This doth not mean, however, that one ought not to yield praise unto former Revelations. On no account is this acceptable, inasmuch as it behooveth man, upon reaching the age of nineteen, to render thanksgiving for the day of his conception as an embryo. For had the embryo not existed, how could he have reached his present state? Likewise had the religion taught by Adam not existed, this Faith would not have attained its present stage. Thus consider thou the development of God’s Faith until the end that hath no end.[8]

Today, these people are accused, from every direction, of being superstitious.  Again, they have unjustly been implicated in the wrongs committed in their beloved homeland.  Their accusers might not just want to harm them.  Maybe, by either explicitly or implicitly connecting one of the most pronounced anti-Baha’i factions currently operating within the Iranian regime to the Baha’i religion, they are trying to solve two problems at once.  Maybe they are simply looking for a scapegoat – someone to blame for what has befallen Iran.  In any case, the immediate victim of these accusations is not just a 300,000-strong religious community living under dire conditions in Iran, or a world religion with 6,000,000 followers all around the globe.  The biggest victim may be a great intellectual movement championed for a whole millennium by some of the most-prominent figures of Iranian-Islamic thought – a movement which was meant to herald the age of maturity of that very society that is today, after almost two centuries, still striving painfully in search of its identity.


[2] Henri Corbin, History of Islamic Philosophy,

[3]مجتهد شبستری؛ هرمنوتیک، کتاب و سنت؛ تهران: طرح نو، 1379، صفحه 123 و 124

[4] زهرا زواریان، عالم مثال از دیدگاه سهروردی،

[5] Henri Corbin, Alone with the alone: creative imagination in the Súfism of Ibn ‘Arabí, page 219


[7] Moojan Momen, An Introduction to Shi’i Islam, Oxford: George Ronald, 1985

[8] The Bab, Selections from the Writings of the Bab, p. 89


One Response

  1. colorado

    October 9, 2009 12:40 am

    Isn’t there a hadith in which one of the Companions of the Prophet was asked whether it was true that things described as being in Paradise are not the like the things of the same name in this life? Even if the extreme affirmative reply recorded is not considered authoritative, might it not be considered an idea similar to philosophical concepts of different-natured worlds or heavens, already seeded into earliest Islam?


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