Baha’u’llah’s letters to Manakji Limji Hataria as found in the Tabernacle of Unity represents a particularly significant work in the Baha’i scriptures for a number of reasons. They represent one of the few texts addressed to someone outside the Abrahamic religious tradition. While addressed to a Zoroastrian, these texts deal with the questions of religious pluralism in general. It is one of the few places where Baha’u’llah discusses the claims of Indic religions. Manakji’s questions were largely formulated, not against the background of mainstream Zoroastrian beliefs, but that of a peculiar school of Zoroastrianism founded by Azar Kaivan that was heavily influenced by Ishraqi philosophy.
This school that flourished in India during the 16th and 17th centuries produced the Dasatir, a supposedly ancient scripture written in the style of the Qur’an, which was said to contain the revelations of pre-Zoroastrian Iranian prophets. Manakji’s questions regarding the Prophets of Mahábád, as well as many of his other theological preconceptions are based on the beliefs promulgated in the Dasatir rather than from any authentic Zoroastrian scripture.
The propose of this paper is to examine the context of the Manakji’s questions and Baha’u’llah’s answers against the background of Ishraqi philosophy. It is my thesis that Baha’u’llah is not simply addressing questions which arose out of the background of South Asian religious pluralism, but a philosophical school which arose within the context of medieval Islamicate culture in the Middle East. Baha’u’llah’s answers, then reveal not only a good deal about his approach to non-Abrahamic religions but to the perennialist approach to pluralism found within Islam itself.
Manakji Limji Hataria was Parsi Zoroastrian who gave up a lucrative career as a merchant to serve as the agent for the Persian Amelioration Society that was established by Parsis in 1854 to assist their Zoroastrian brethren in Iran. It has been suggested that Manakji met Baha’u’llah en route to Iran,1 but this appears unlikely. Manakji departed from Bombay on March 31, 1854 while Baha’u’llah left Baghdad for Kurdistan on April 10 of that year. Manakji took the sea route to Hormuz and there is no mention of him passing through Baghdad on his way to Iran. Manakji does mention traveling to Baghdad for an urgent but unspecified purpose soon after October 1860. He remained there for over a year and it is likely that he met Baha’u’llah at that time. Baha’u’llah Himself mentions that meeting as follows:
Thy letter hath reached this captive of the world in His prison. It brought joy, strengthened the ties of friendship, and renewed the memory of bygone days. Praise be to the Lord of creation Who granted us the favour of meeting in the Arabian land, wherein we visited and held converse. It is Our hope that our encounter may never be forgotten nor effaced from the heart by the passage of time, but rather that, out of the seeds thus sown, the sweet herbs of friendship may spring forth and remain forever fresh and verdant for all to behold.
In 1864 Manakji returned to India for a short period where he presented the plight of the Iranian Zoroastrians to their sister community in Bombay. He returned in 1865 with additional funds to establish schools for Zoroastrian children on the western model. The first school establish by Manakji was an orphanage in Tehran which served some forty students. Manakji and his wife initially tried to run the school on their own with the assistance of some volunteers. However, their knowledge of Persian proved to be inadequate to the task and other educated Zoroastrians were not available for this purpose.
Around 1876 Mirza Abu’l-Fadl Gulpaygani was expelled from his position as a teacher in a Muslim seminary in Tehran after it was discovered that he was a Baha’i. Manakji heard of his predicament and of his skill in writing Farsi-sade or Persian without any Arabic root words. Being well-disposed towards the Baha’is, Manakji offered Mirza Abu’l-Fadl a position teaching Persian literature in his new school and ask him to serve as his personal secretary as well. Several other Baha’is came to work for Manakji as well, among them Mirza Husayn Hamadani who was commissioned by Manakji to compose the Tarikh-i Jadid, an early history of the Faith.
Manakji worked tirelessly to improve the conditions of the Zoroastrians of Iran. Besides establishing educational institutions, he renovated fire temples and dakhmas or towers of silence for the disposal of the dead. He made every effort to prosecute those who illegally harassed Zoroastrians and lobbied for the removal of all legal disabilities. His primary goal was to abolish the jizya or discriminatory poll tax placed on Zoroastrians in Iran, something that was not finally accomplished until 1882, although he succeeded in progressively lowering it much earlier. It has been suggested that it was Baha’u’llah’s advice which enabled Manakji to persuade the Shah to abolish the jizya. I’ve yet to find any evidence that Baha’u’llah ever gave him direct advice on this matter, however Baha’u’llah’s second letter to Manakji appears to allude to the fact that Manakji would soon succeed in this endeavor, for speaking in the voice of Haji Aqa Jan, this letter reads, “One day the Tongue of Glory uttered a word in regard to the Sahib indicating that he may erelong be aided to perform a deed that would immortalize his name.”
The period of time in which Manakji employed Mirza Abu’l-Fadl is also the period in which Zoroastrians began to become interested in the Baha’i Faith and convert in sizable numbers. While this distressed the dasturs or Zoroastrian high priests, it did not seem to bother Manakji or the agents of the Amelioration Society which followed until around 1930. In fact, the Parsis argued that one could be both a Zoroastrian and a Baha’i just as one could be a Zoroastrian and a theosopher or freemason. When Manakji established lay councils (arjuman) to administer the affairs of the Zoroastrian community, Zoroastrian Baha’is often played prominent roles in these councils especially in Yazd.
Manakji’s First Question
Baha’u’llah revealed two major letters in answer to Manakji’s questions. The first letter is written at the level of general principle and Baha’u’llah articulates the universality of his own claims. Manakji, however, was dissatisfied because he did not feel this letter had adequately addressed his specific questions. A second set of correspondence followed in which Manakji presented his questions once again, this time through his secretary Mirza Abu’l-Fadl while Baha’u’llah responded through His own amanuensis Mírzá Áqá Ján. The letter states:
“Now, as to his questions, it was not deemed advisable to refer and reply to each one individually, for the response would have run counter to wisdom and been incompatible with that which is current amongst men.”)
By wisdom [hikmat] Baha’u’llah is referring to the caution that should be exercised to avoid misunderstandings and opposition on the part of Muslims who might get a hold of this correspondence. Baha’u’llah insists that had Manakji truly understood what He was saying Manakji would have seen that his questions had been answered fully and completely. Baha’u’llah states that He had avoided going into specifics in the second letter, unlike the first, Manakji’s own questions are repeated and a specific response is given to each one. While on some levels Baha’u’llah initial letter is perhaps the more profound, I wish to focus primarily on the second letter for only this one provides a window as to the specific questions Baha’u’llah was being asked.
Manakji’s first question is as follows.
“The Prophets of Mahábád, together with Zoroaster, were twenty-eight in number. Each one of them sought to exalt, rather than abrogate, the faith and religion of the others. Each one that appeared bore witness to the truth and veracity of the former law and religion and breathed no word about abolishing them. Each declared: ’We are the bearers of a revelation from God, which We deliver unto His servants.’ Some of the Hindu Prophets, however, have declared: ’We are God Himself, and it is incumbent upon the entire creation to bear allegiance unto Us. Whensoever conflict and dissension appear amongst men, We arise to quench it.’ Each one that appeared announced: ’I am the same One that appeared in the beginning.’ The latter Prophets such as David, Abraham, Moses and Jesus confirmed the truth of the Prophets gone before them, but said: ’Such was the law in the past, but in this day the law is that which I proclaim.’ The Arabian Prophet, however, hath said: ’Through My appearance every law hath proven to be unsound and no law holdeth but Mine.’ Which of these creeds is acceptable and which of these leaders is to be preferred?”
Manakji alludes to Hindu beliefs when he states: “Some of the Hindu Prophets, however, have declared: ’We are God Himself, and it is incumbent upon the entire creation to bear allegiance unto Us. Whensoever conflict and dissension appear amongst men, We arise to quench it.”This appears to be an allusion to the famous fourth chapter of the Bhagavad-Gita,
“Though myself unborn, undying, the lord of creatures, I fashion nature, which is mine, and I come into being through my own magic. Whenever sacred duty decays and chaos prevails, then, I create myself, Arjuna. To protect men of virtue and destroy men who do evil, to set the standard of sacred duty, I appear in age after age.”
Each one claims to be an incarnation of God Himself and therefore they are all considered one. He then compares this with the Abrahamic religions where each one recognizes the previous prophets but changes their laws. So the question is which schema is better, the one Manakji supposes to be the Zoroastrian one wherein each Messenger deems himself a mere servant of God who reiterates the exact same message, or the Hindu concept of Avatars wherein God is thought to incarnate Himself, or the Abrahamic religions wherein Prophets acknowledge themselves to be servants of God but who change the laws. Muhammad, however, he appears to place in a separate category as one who both changed the laws and outright rejected the revelations which proceeded His.
Baha’u’llah answers by reiterating the same principle articulated in the Kitab-i Iqan that all the Messengers of God are basically the same and none to be preferred over the other. They differ in that some reveal a new set of laws whereas others do not. But this relates to the exigencies of the time, not Their own station. Baha’u’llah challenges Manakji’s conception of Muhammad’s revelation but He remains silent on the question of the validity so-called prophets of Mahabad and their unchanging revelation. He also is silent on the question of incarnation or reincarnation in relation to Hinduism. But He doesn’t hesitate to draw Manakji’s attention to the following principle of Progressive Revelation which directly contradicts Manakji’s own perennialism:
“The All-Knowing Physician hath His finger on the pulse of mankind. He perceiveth the disease, and prescribeth, in His unerring wisdom, the remedy. Every age hath its own problem, and every soul its particular aspiration. The remedy the world needeth in its present-day afflictions can never be the same as that which a subsequent age may require. Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and centre your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements.”
Nowhere in the canonical Zoroastrian scriptures is there any reference to the prophets of Mahabad. Instead these prophets are associated with two texts written in India during the Mughal, period namely the Dabistan-i Mazahib1 and the Desatir. To understand the background of these two book some knowledge of Mughal history is necessary. The Mughal Dynasty was established by the by the Timurid prince Babur in 1504 who came to power by defeating various Turkish and Afghan factions who had previously ruled northern India. After Babur’s death these factions were able to reassert themselves do to the incompetence of Babur’s son Humayun who was forced to seek refuge in Safavid Iran. While residing in Iran Humayun fained conversion to Shi’ism. When he was able to regain his kingdom in 1555 he returned to India with a number of Shi’ite courtiers. For this reason, unlike the Safavid and Ottoman Empires which become strictly divided along religious lines, the Mughals maintained a policy of religious pluralism, both in regards to inter-islamic disputes and in regards to non-islamic religious communities. When Akbar later became emperor he utilized the Hindu rajput militias to offset the power of the Turkish and Afghan factions who had proven themselves dangerous to the throne.
As the Safavid Dynasty in Iran became increasingly more intolerant, India witnessed a steady stream of Persian immigrants, both of Muslim and Zoroastrian background. Many of them were heavily influenced by Ishraqi philosophy which eventually provided the basis for Akbar’s own spirituality. The Ishraqi school was founded by Shihab al-Din Suhardi Maqtul (d. 1191) and flourished in both Isfahan and Shiraz. The Isfahan developed a specifically Shi’ite form of Ishraqi philosophy during the seventeenth century but a century previous to this immigrants from Shiraz, bearing both Muslim and Zoroastrian names, produced an Ishraqi school which became influential in the ruling circles of India and was suited to its requirements. Among those bearing Zoroastrian names was Azar Kaivan, a Shirazi mystic who appeared during Akbar’s reign. The cult he promoted presumed esoteric doctrines virtually identical to those held by Muslim Ishraqi philosophers. Accompanying Azar Kaivan were a number of Shirazi disciples, both Zoroastrian and Muslim. At that time, however, he did not appear to have attracted many Parsi followers.
Ishraqi philosophy sought, in the words of Hossein Nasr, to integrate “Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy with Zoroastrian angelology and Hermetic” ideas within the context of Sufism.” Suhwardi himself identified his beliefs with those of ancient Persian sages. The school shared with Neo-platonism a cosmology based on emnations, but Suhrawardi personalized those emanations by identifying them Zoroastrian angels or dieties, or even with historical personages. Suhrawardi considered Hermes, whom he identified as the Prophet Enoch (Idris) as the father of true philosophy. Hermes was followed by a chain of sages both in pre-Socratic Greece and Ancient Persia and finally in Islam.7 Those personages whom Suhwardi identified are remembered in Zoroastrian history as kings rather than as religious leaders. However, kings in the Zoroastrian texts were regarded as the manifestations of God’s glory; Divine light rested upon them. The Ishraqi school denied neither the prophethood of Muhammad nor the revelational character of the Qur’an. Yet to a large extent, the legitimacy of Ishraqi doctrines rested upon their claim to antiquity. This implied that older revelations took precedence over newer ones, hence destroying the ultimacy of the Qur’anic revelation. Furthermore, since the Ishraqiyan equated revelation with the illuminative wisdom of the sages, the finality of prophethood became meaningless. This is in part the assumption that lays behind Manakji’s question. Both Manakji and Baha’u’llah are at some level willing to accept the oneness of religion. But for Manakji religion is perennial and therefore the oldest is the best whereas for Baha’u’llah religion is progressive and it is therefore necessary to respond to God’s latest Messenger, not uncover the esoteric secrets of the oldest one as Ishraqi philosophy sought to do.
In Iran Ishraqi philosophy attracted Muslim intellectuals dissatisfied with the confines of Islamic orthodoxy as defined by the legalistically minded `ulama. Less is known about non-Muslim Iranians who embraced Ishraqi beliefs, but apparently it allowed them to come to terms with their status as followers of a tradition regarded as superseded by the dominant religion. Those participating in the Persian culture of India found Ishraqi doctrines all the more attractive since they presented a means by which elements of the Hindu religion could be appreciated and integrated. 10 Ishraqi philosophy, which underpinned the emperor’s cult of the Din ilahi, eventually provided the basis for the spirituality favored in Akbar’s court. Akbar himself became the ideal priest-king endowed with Divine Light, the apocalyptic figure, at once the Perfect Man and the “Lord of the Age” (Sahib-i Zaman).
Much of what we know about the cult of Azar Kaivan is based on Dabistan, a description of various religious sects in India written by what appears to be an Iranian follower of Azar Kaivan. The author of the Dabistan insists that Ishraqi philosophy is virtually identical to that of the ancient Persian sages. He further mentions that one of Azar Kaivan’s disciples translated Suhrawardi’s works from Arabic into Persian.
The Dabistan quotes extensively from the Dasatir, a text the author identifies with the ancient religion of the Parsis. The Dasatir professes to be a collection of writings of a series of fifteen different Persian prophets, including Alexander the Great (!), not the twenty-eight Manakji mentions, who were said to have flourished from the time of Mahabad, supposed founder of the primal religion, through the Sasanian dynasty. Although this text was quoted extensively in the first half of the seventeenth century, particularly among followers of Azar Kaivan, no mention of it can be found in pre-Mughal literature. Copies of the Dasatir disappeared from India perhaps with the demise of Azar Kaivan sect. The two copies that are now in existence were discovered in Iran in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Mulla Kaus who had traveled to Iran in search of a resolution to the discrepancy between Parsi and Irani Zoroastrian calendars that were found to be a month off from one another discovered the first copy. This caused much confusion in the Parsi community that became acquainted with this text just as Anquetil Du Perron published the first translation of the Zend-Avesta or Zoroastrian scriptures into a western language. Sir William Jones labeled the Zend-Avesta a forgery but when shown a copy of the Dasatir he pronounced it the authentic Zoroastrian scriptures. Parsis themselves did not seem inclined to take sides in this debate, for the most part they instead cheerfully accepted both texts as scripture and made few attempts to resolve the discrepancies between the two.
A second, lesser-known copy was discovered by Manakji himself in 1871. Unfortunately Manakji did not purchase the manuscript but had a copy made which is now in the K. R. Cama Oriental Institute (H.P. ms 131) where I examined it in 1985. Enough differences exist between the two manuscripts to presume they came from separate sources. Strangely, this manuscript contains a notation suggesting it was completed in 358 A.H. Internal evidence, however, suggests a much later date. The original manuscript of the Dasatir consisted of a text written in what purports to be a celestial language, Mahabadian, along with a Persian translation having no admixture of Arabic.
The Mahabadian language, found only in the Dasatir, consists of vocabulary found in Indian and Iranian dialects imposed on a Persian grammar. The term Mahabadian is taken from the title given to the first prophet, who in Persian is referred to as Buzurg Abad or the Great Abad. Maha, though, is taken from the Sanskrit term for great. Other Sanskritized words, such as tapas bud for fortification, appear as well. The principles contained in the Dasatir indicate a great deal of influence from the Neo-Platonism associated with the Ishraqi School. The association of God with light and illumination provides a constant theme throughout the work. You will note that Baha’u’llah emphasizes this theme in His first letter to Manakji. Certain Hindu beliefs have been integrated into that system, including transmigration and the emphasis on ascetical practices.
Every chapter consists of a short revelation ranging from 16 to 70 verses, given to each individual prophet. The chapters begin by taking refuge in God from evil thoughts, then give an invocation of the names of God in a manner reminiscent of the Qur’an, and end by foretelling by name the coming of the next prophet by name. The rituals associated with prayer conform to Muslim practices: they are performed in congregation, preceded by abolutions and accompanied by prostrations. The Dasatir describes God as the only self-subsistent being and explicitly denies there can be two such beings. All contingent beings emanate hierarchically from the Supreme Being.The final part of the Dasatir foretells the coming of the Islamic invasions. The Arabs are described as greedy, lustful, quarrelsome and violent men “who do not what their great one hath spoken.” No explicit criticism is aimed at Muhammad or His revelation; rather, it is foretold that “When their religion shall have lasted a thousand years, it shall be such, in consequence of divisions that, were their Legislator to see it, he would not know it again.”
This last statement appears to describe the religious situation in India during Akbar’s reign, which coincided with the end of the first Muslim millennium and may provide the best evidence for dating the Dasatir’s composition to this period. The Dasatir represents a sixteenth century protest against the forms of Islam that existed in India at the time. The evidence of the Dabistan and the Dasatir indicates that Iranians of both Zoroastrian and Muslim background joined in this protest, but they did so by accepting many of the Islamic norms of what a religion should be. Hence the “revelations” of the Dasatir mimic the style of the Qur’an, as the form of sequential revelation mimics Islamic models. Yet purity in religion derives from its closer association with antiquity. It is this perennial conception of religion which Baha’u’llah continually challenges with His repeated insistence that Manakji consider the needs of the age in which he lives.
Manakji’s Second Question
The second question raised by Manakji is the following:
There are four schools of thought in the world. One school affirmeth that all the visible worlds, from atoms to suns, constitute God Himself and that naught can be seen but Him. Another school claimeth that God is that Essence that must of necessity exist, that His Messengers are the intermediaries between Him and His creatures, and that their mission is to lead humanity unto Him. Yet another school holdeth that the stars were created by the Necessary Being, whilst all other things are their effect and outcome. These things continually appear and disappear, even as the minute creatures that are generated in a pool of water. A further school maintaineth that the Necessary Being hath fashioned Nature through whose effect and agency all things, from atoms to suns, appear and disappear without beginning or end. What need then for an account or reckoning? As the grass groweth with the coming of the rain and vanisheth thereafter, so it is with all things. If the Prophets and the kings have instituted laws and ordinances, the proponents of this school argue, this hath merely been for the sake of preserving the civil order and regulating human society. The Prophets and the kings, however, have acted in different ways: the former have said ’God hath spoken thus’ that the people might submit and obey, whilst the latter have resorted to the sword and the cannon. Which of these four schools is approved in the sight of God?)
The alternatives for creation presented by Manakji include the following; the kind of monism commonly accepted in Hinduism, the second is a metaphysical dualism between the Creator and the creation wherein the Prophets serve as intermediaries between the two realms. The third alternative mentioned by Manakji wherein God is the creator solely of the celestial realm whereas the physical world emanates from it may strike us as a bit strange, but it is one of the alternatives mentioned in the Dabistan and again demonstrates Manakji’s dependence on the texts associated with the school of Azar Kaivan. It represents perhaps a rather odd formulation of Neo-platonic pantheism. The fourth alternative is the deism commonly promoted by those influenced by Greek philosophy.
Once again Baha’u’llah attempts to redirect Manakji’s attention to what He considers the most vital issue in comparison to which such metaphysical questions are of little importance: “Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and centre your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements” and urges Manakji to center his attention on the “Lord of Revelation” for “ This is the day of vision, for the countenance of God is shining resplendent above the horizon of Manifestation. This is the day of hearing, for the call of God hath been raised.” He goes on to say that off these four schools the second which regards Prophets as intermediaries between God and creation is the closest to righteousness [taqwa, God-fearing] and acknowledges the sublime station of the Manifestations, but indicated there was some truth to all the other positions because all things are manifestations of the names and attributes of God.
The laws of Islam are based on religious principles [usul or sources] and jurisprudence [figh], but in the Mahábád and Hindu religions there are only principles, and all laws, even those regarding the drinking of water or giving and taking in marriage, are considered a part of these principles, as are all other matters of human life. Kindly indicate which view is acceptable in the sight of God, exalted be His mention.)
This question relates to a problem particular to Islam. As Baha’u’llah notes in His answer the principles of Islamic jurisprudence were formulated by the great Sunni scholar, Abu Hanifa. He enumerated these principles or sources as four, the Qur’an, the sunna of the Prophet as found in the hadiths, analogical reasoning and the consensus of the community as articulated by the ‘ulama. The third usul or principle of Islamic law gives individual clerics a tremendous amount of leeway to interpret Islamic law. Manakji appears to be saying that in Zoroastrianism and Hinduism clerics have no such power. Baha’u’llah answers by pointing out that ultimately there is only one principle, namely the recognition of God through His Manifestation and acceptance of whatever proceeds from Him. Manakji’s attention is once again directed to the principle of “Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and centre your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements” and that Bahá’u’lláh’s this revelation is the primary principle in relationship to which all other revelations are as secondary ordinances. In this Day, therefore the approval or rejection of anything should be based solely on the Word of God.” Baha’u’llah goes on to indicate however, that we should take a magnanimous attitude towards Muslim scholars like Abu Hanifa without getting bogged down in their petty differences: “The eye of divine mercy casteth its glance upon all that is past. It behooveth us to mention them only in favourable terms, for they do not contradict that which is essential.”
“Some maintain that whatsoever is in accordance with the dictates of nature and of the intellect must needs be both permissible and compulsory in the divine law, and conversely that one should refrain from observing that which is incompatible with these standards. Others believe that whatsoever hath been enjoined by the divine law and its blessed Author should be accepted without rational proof or natural evidence and obeyed without question or reservation, such as the march between Safa and Marwah, the stoning of the pillar of Jamrah, he washing of one’s feet during ablutions, and so on. Kindly indicate which of these positions is acceptable.” Bahá’u’lláh insists that Manakji is establishing a false dichotomy.
Human reason varies according to the capacity of the individual and unaided cannot be a sufficient guide. The Manifestation, however, constitutes the Divine Mind and Perfect Intellect. Therefore when one recognizes him one attains true understanding. Certain ritual acts are performed in each age to emblazon the God’s name and for this reason they are rewarded. He uses the example of Muhammad’s changing the Qiblih from Jerusalem to Mecca as an example of this, for it served to establish who the true believers were. In order to prove his point that the Manifestation himself is the embodiment of reason, he uses Zoroaster Himself as an example:
“Matters have come to such a pass that the people of the world have grown accustomed to iniquity and flee from fair-mindedness. A divine Manifestation Who hath extolled and magnified the one true God, exalted be His glory, Who hath borne witness to His knowledge and confessed that His Essence is sanctified above all things and exalted beyond every comparison–such a Manifestation hath been called at various times a worshipper of the sun or a fire-worshipper. . .. One of the great Prophets Whom the foolish ones of Persia in this day reject uttered these sublime words: “The sun is but a dense and spherical mass. It deserveth not to be called God or the Almighty. For the almighty Lord is He Whom no human comprehension can ever conceive, Whom no earthly knowledge can circumscribe, and Whose Essence none hath ever been or shall ever be able to fathom”. Consider how eloquently, how solemnly He hath affirmed the very truth that God is proclaiming in this day.”
Bahá’u’lláh is therefore indicating that Zoroaster himself was rejected on the basis of what some imagined to be human reason even though it turned out He was telling the truth. This passage is clearest instance where Bahá’u’lláh affirms the prophethood of Zoroaster.