The Submission of Iran

It has often been wondered how the Persian Empire was so thoroughly conquered by the armies of Islam. How could so many Persians, with their deep belief in freewill and the divinity of the Good, convert in such large numbers to a religion of predestination and submission to fate?

Since I’ve been reading Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, I believe I’ve gained a new insight into that transformation.

As Ferdowsi depicts the annihilation of the Persian Empire at the hands of Alexander, he has these words spoken by the Persian king Darius III:

Know that evil and good both come from God.

This, to me, may mark the lesson of the Shahnameh in general. It is a book of fate, of mortal glories given and taken away by God. God is in total control of the fates of men. If men have any control at all of their own fates, it is in their ability to accept their fates gracefully. Each man plays his part in the drama, but in the end every step is preordained by God.

This may not have been the way the ancient Persians saw the world given what we suspect were their beliefs, but by Ferdowsi’s time, the Persians were watching their world consumed in Arab conquest, bit by bit. So much of what they had believed in was annihilated mercilessly; much more completely than what Alexander achieved. How else could they have seen God but as a capricious, amoral, absolute dictator? There was no point in striving, and no role for freewill; only an impotent hope that prayer and piety would satiate their new heavenly despot.

The Iranians, it would turn out, were conditioned by events to make the most steadfast of Muslims, for they themselves had witnessed the awesome, amoral might of Fate. They learned that the God of Fate blesses whom he will, so they chose to submit themselves, however reluctantly, to Fate’s favored ones: their Arab conquerors.

The Perfect Sin

Here’s my latest PowerPoint presentation, saved as a movie, then merged with an audio file with QuickTime and exported. The subject is idolatry (don’t act so surprised!) and Islam. The soundtrack is Mozart’s “Laudate Dominum” sung by Maria Zadori, one of my all-time favorites.

I considered “James Dean” by the Eagles for an ironic twist, but solemnity won out over humor in the end, and besides, there’s ample irony in using a idolatrous prayer as the soundtrack for this sequence.

The lyrics:

Laudate Dominum omnes gentes
laudate eum, omnes populi
Quoniam confirmata est super nos misericordia ejus,
et veritas Domini manet in aeternum.

Gloria Patri, et Filio et Spiritui Sancto.
Secut erat in principio, et nunc, et simper,
et in saecula saeculorum. Amen

And in English:

O praise the Lord, all ye nations;
Praise him, all ye peoples
For his loving kindness has been bestowed upon us,
and the truth of the Lord endures for ever.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be,
world without end. Amen.

I haven’t, as of yet, been able to upload the movie at full quality to YouTube. Perhaps YouTube has trouble processing the fade transition between slides, as removing those transitions appears to enable YouTube to process the file. So here it is, posted on the blog. This required that I do some customization of my blog header file, which was a bit of a hassle.

Religious Tolerance in Ancient Persia

The Vendidad is the Zoroastrian book of laws that was supposed to have been authored, if not written down, roughly around the time of Christ. The content, though, seems quite ancient. There is very little in the Vendidad that suggests that it was written for a civilized (urban) people, or even a warring people; yet, it is supposed to have been authored after Iran had been civilized for over 600 years. It is because of the ancient character of the content that I’m inclined to believe it retained much from an older, primitive tradition.

Reading the Vendidad, one might nearly guess that the supposed author was aware of little more than his own tribe. There’s nothing in the Vendidad about national or intertribal government, kings, or even warfare, though the existence of unbelievers is acknowledged. There are several passages that indicate some discrimination against unbelievers; for instance, murdering an unbeliever does not appear to be regarded as a crime (as in Judaism, perhaps to distinguish murder from warfare), and it also seems that an unbeliever could be absolved of some crimes by converting to Mazdaism.

There are also indications that Mazdean law does not apply to unbelievers, and that would seem to be corroborated by history. The Parthian Empire was evidently a relatively tolerant, loosely-organized empire, and though the Parthians’ Sasanian (Sassanid) successors were quite strict with regard to treason, heresy, and apostasy, they appear to have sometimes permitted Jews and Christians to live somewhat autonomously under their reign. It is thought that the Sasanians were the first rulers to apply what became known as the “millet” system, wherein each recognized religious group would enforce its own laws internally.

“… under the early Sasanians much of the groundwork for the future was established. For example the authority over political and economic affairs of the heads of various religious minorities, famous as the millet system of the much later Ottoman Empire, seems to have been organized by the early Sasanians, as well as the tax system applied to minorities.”

The Seleucid, Parthian and Sasanian periods
Edited by Ehsan Yar-Shater
The Cambridge History of Iran
Page 132

‘It was likewise under Sassanid rule that the first agreement which can properly be called by the name of “millet” was concluded.’

Religion and Nationality
Werner J. Cahnman

“In 410 AD, during the rule of Yazgard I (399-420), Christians were recognized as a millet, or separate religious community, and were protected as such within the organization of the Sassanid Empire. The Sassanid law recognized that the Head of the Christian millet was responsible for upholding discipline within the millet and that the state gave formal backing and recognition to the Head.”

The Christians of Lebanon
Political Rights in Islamic Law
By David D. Grafton
Page 20

The millet system of Yazdagird I, the enlightened rule of other Sassanid kings like Hormizd IV, and the open rule of the Parthians were, in a sense, continuations of a more ancient tradition of interfaith tolerance; established a millennium earlier by Cyrus the Great.

Unfortunately, this and other gestures of Royal toleration were more than equaled by waves of persecution, usually driven by the Zoroastrian priesthood. This is no surprise, for the people most invested in the status quo (the priesthood and aristocracy), as well as the people that must have truly believed the doctrines of traditional Zoroastrianism would have been in natural opposition to religions like Christianity, Mazdakism, and Manichaenism. Irreconcilable beliefs about eternal salvation and damnation are bound to fall into conflict before long.

Still, the situation was not simple. Persecution against Manichaenism, for instance, only flared up after 30 years of royal support had allowed the young faith to flourish. Persecution against Christians, for their part, was often a reaction against Christian expansion efforts and refusal to respect the gods of other peoples.

The question I am attempting to find an answer for is: did Zoroastrianism help or hurt the situation? I am inclined to believe the latter. The dominant traditionalism was too strong to permit toleration for long, in spite of more enlightened aspects of the faith. It was typically the kings who sought tolerance, perhaps realizing a modest tolerance to be in the best interests of the Empire.

Our Daily Bread: Mazda in the Shadows

The Bahá’í religion, though Islamic in its fundamentals, retains a remarkable wealth of Zoroastrian residue from its Iranian heritage.

The Faravahar: Glory of God

The Most Great Peace

In spite of all the prophecies of doom that I had to endure as a young Bahá’í, I remember having a vision of a more distant future utopia; a clean, civilized world civilization that would balance urban and rural economies, and accomplish great scientific and technological feats. This is what Bahá’ís call the Most Great Peace. Though I now find it unrealistic, I still look back on that naive vision with sentimental sighs of what might have been if reality hadn’t broken into my childhood and robbed my world of its innocence.

Yet there are many Bahá’ís who still look forward to the Most Great Peace.

It was years after I abandoned that vision that I encountered the ancient vision in whose womb the Most Great Peace appears to have been conceived. I discovered that the ancient Zoroastrians also had such a utopian vision of a renewed, purified world. Note that they weren’t looking forward to the end of the world, but rather its reform and renewal. This vision permeates both Bahá’í and Zoroastrian world views.

Progressive Revelation

It’s not just a utopian view of the future that these oldest and newest of Iranian religions have in common, but their views on the purpose and history of religion are also quite similar:

Be it known that, the reason for mankind becoming doers of work of a superior kind is religion; and it is owing to it only that there is a living in prosperity through the Creator. It is always necessary to send it (religion) from time to time to keep men back from being mixed up with sin and to regenerate them. … All the reformers of mankind (i.e. prophets) are considered as connected with its (religion’s) design;… —Dénkard 3.35

Thoughts, Words, & Deeds

The phrase “doers of work” in the above passage is reminiscent of the great Zoroastrian mantra “good thoughts good words good deeds.” Does this not recall one of characteristic themes of the Bahá’í Faith, as a religion of deeds that recognizes the influential nature of words?

Glory, Light, & Fire

As I’ve discussed before, the closely related themes of fire, light, and glory are also held in common between these two faiths. Some of this commonality can be tracked through Iranian religious themes of illumination and glory from Zoroastrianism through Shí’a Islám to the Bahá’í Faith.

The “New” Calendar

Then there’s the Bahá’í calendar, which is based on the old Iranian solar calendar—from name days, feasts, an end-of-year adjustment, to No Rooz itself, rather than the lunar Islamic calendar, except that the Bahá’í calendar replaces the natural 12:1 lunar:solar cycle ratio with 19:1, and inserts a month of fasting (in Islamic fashion).

Fire Temples and Sunrise Temples

Even the Bahá’í “mashriqu’l-adhkar”, a term that carries an intimation of fire in its meaning “dawning place of remembrance” seems to hearken back to the old Persian fire temples than the Islamic mosques that were also inspired thereby:

… The fire-temples of the world stand as eloquent testimony to this truth. In their time they summoned, with burning zeal, all the inhabitants of the earth to Him Who is the Spirit of purity. —Bahá’u’lláh, in a letter to Mírzá Abu’l-Fadl


  • emphasis on cleanliness
  • love of gardens (Zoroastrians are famous gardeners)
  • 15 as the age of maturity (or is it technically 14 for Bahá’ís?)

Some related entries:

Our Daily Bread: Relativistic Revelation

Today’s relatively inspiring slice is from the pages of “The Dispensation of Bahá’u’lláh”, by the fifth leader of the Bábahá’í revelation, Shoghi Effendi:

… the fundamental principle which constitutes the bedrock of Bahá’í belief, the principle that religious truth is not absolute but relative, that Divine Revelation is orderly, continuous and progressive and not spasmodic or final.

This is probably the most foundational statement on the doctrine of “progressive revelation” in the Bahá’í writings. It might be argued that Shoghi Effendi’s approach might reach a little too far by establishing relativism as the foundation of his religion. It might be a great argument, come to think of it, for no revelation at all. Why not have God come to each person on that person’s terms, so that person can best learn what he needs to learn from God? God doubtless has the time to make house calls, so why not go the distance and do the job right? Indeed, if God wishes to avoid spasmodic revelation, it seems to me that personal revelation might be the way to go.

The Bahá’í idea of relativism in revelation is depends on the premise that men only progress as a society more than they do as individuals. According to Bahá’í thinking, I have more in common with my bushman contemporaries than I do with a Roman or a Greek from two millennia back. My spiritual maturity is strictly defined by the millennium in which I reside, regardless of my education or culture.

The doctrine of progressive revelation, quite contrary to the doom-laden Islamic doctrine of a final, corrective revelation, is actually quite reminiscent of an old Iranian idea about the renewal of the world.

Be it known that, the reason for mankind becoming doers of work of a superior kind is religion; and it is owing to it only that there is a living in prosperity through the Creator. It is always necessary to send it (religion) from time to time to keep men back from being mixed up with sin and to regenerate them. … All the reformers of mankind (i.e. prophets) are considered as connected with its (religion’s) design;… —Dénkard 3.35

… or perhaps an Indo-Iranian idea, as this does resemble the Indian idea of divine guidance somewhat.

Unlike the Bahá’í vision, this ancient Iranian vision does foresee a time when revelation will cease, because it will not be needed any longer.

there will be no necessity for sending religion, through a prophet, for the (benefit of) Creatures of the world who will be in existence after him (Soshyant)…. —Dénkard 3.35

Though the vision does not involve an idea of continuing incremental progress, it does involve the ideas of periodic rejuvenation, and eventually, a complete renewal of the world.

Our Daily Bread: Partners of God

Anyone who claims to be on God’s side is a polytheist. To be a true monotheist, one must be either a strict determinist or an agnostic (with regard to the will of God).

I’ve been known to throw around the terms “idol” and “partner of God” ad nauseam among friends. It’s a chip that seems to have appeared on my shoulder during my employment at the Bahá’í World Centre, where a particularly high saint-per-capita ratio gave me some food for thought. Since that time, I’ve slowly come to regard the believers of the Judaic tradition (including most Jews, Christians, Muslims, Bahá’ís, etc.) as worshipers in various polytheistic partnerships and rivalries.

I get the term “partnership” from Islám. The Qur’án makes it clear that God has no partners, and needs no help from anybody.

الْحَمْدُ لِلّهِ الَّذِي لَمْ يَتَّخِذْ وَلَدًا وَلَم يَكُن لَّهُ شَرِيكٌ فِي الْمُلْكِ وَلَمْ يَكُن لَّهُ

All praise is due to God, who begets no offspring, and has no partner in His dominion, and has no weakness, and therefore no need of any aid. (17.111)

The most literal meaning of the term “shirk” (شرك‎) is a lesser god who might help or otherwise harm God or his cause. Thus, anyone who would diminish his belief in God’s omnipotence by ascribing any power whatsoever to any being other than God would be guilty of this offense. The classic example of this offense is the Christian worship of Christ, as the alleged son and accomplice of God, but the problem of partnership goes much deeper.

Any free agent (individual) with any influence whatsoever must be seen as a partner or rival of God. Some might assert that this is not applicable to the Islamic notion of partnership, because people don’t worship people, but don’t they? Isn’t the attribution of any power whatsoever to any free entity the deification of that entity?

How many self-professed Muslims, I wonder, truly internalize the mantra “all praise be to God (الْحَمْدُ لِلّهِ)”?

This is not a problem for the traditional, deterministic Sunni, the Calvinist Christian, or for Zoroastrians who believe in freewill but not in an omnipotent God (partnership is virtuous in Zoroastrianism); but it is a serious indictment of any observant Muslim who claims to be a free monotheist, with one possible exception.

Many people consider themselves believers in an all-powerful God and at the same time consider the destinies of individuals and society to be up to others than God, but that is not really monotheism; rather, it is a form of polytheism, where the pantheon consists of billions of lesser gods that we casually call immortal souls. The Big God—call him Zeus—may have the power to frustrate the wills of any of these minor Gods, or even punish them for all eternity, but notice: He has never claimed to be able to annihilate a soul; not, at least, for a very long time.

But that Zeus is not the God of the inshá’alláh (إن شاء الله) Muslim. That Muslim’s God, so dominant in the Qur’án, is a God who meddles with the intentions of men; who “seals the hearts of men” as he deems appropriate. He is truly omnipotent, and the only will that men possess is a gift (or a curse) from Him. In other words, all individual will is an expression of divine will.

Blessed is He Who doeth as He willeth by a word of His command. He, verily, is the True One, the Knower of things unseen. Blessed is He Who inspireth whomsoever He willeth with whatsoever He desireth, through His irresistible and inscrutable command. Blessed is He Who aideth whomsoever He desireth with the hosts of the unseen. His might is, in truth, equal to His purpose, and He, verily, is the All-Glorious, the Self-Subsisting. Blessed is He Who exalteth whomsoever He willeth by the power of His sovereign might, and confirmeth whomsoever He chooseth in accordance with His good pleasure; well is it with them that understand! —Súriy-i-Haykal

There is, I suppose, one loophole out of all this for the non-deterministic monotheist: if one were not to claim to be on God’s side, perhaps—say, because one considers the will of God to be utterly inscrutable, one need not be tried as a polytheist in the court of strict monotheism. It is, after all, hard to partner up with God if one doesn’t know what God wants.

This would, of course, require a degree of modesty rarely exhibited among believers, and any mention of divine covenants or pacts would immediately disqualify the believer from this exemption.

Our Daily Bread: They Who Know what God Knows

Today we’re having more fun with Bahá’u’lláh’s Book of Certitude …

Bahá’u’lláh cites verse 3.7 (3.6 according to some) of the Qur’án twice in his Book of Certitude. Here’s how Shoghi Effendi (the second successor of Bahá’u’lláh) translated the passage (he translates each citation differently):

None knoweth the interpretation thereof but God and they that are well-grounded in knowledge.

None knoweth the meaning thereof except God and them that are well-grounded in knowledge.

This seems to be saying “no one knows except those who know.” How absurdly circular! But in defense of the Qur’án, every broadly-recognized English translation of that book makes it quite clear that this is not what the Qur’án is saying.


None knoweth its explanation save Allah. And those who are of sound instruction say: We believe therein; the whole is from our Lord;…

Yusuf ‘Alí:

no one knows its hidden meanings except Allah. And those who are firmly grounded in knowledge say: “We believe in the Book; the whole of it is from our Lord:”


none knoweth its interpretation but God. And the stable in knowledge say, ‘We believe in it: it is all from our Lord.’

It turns out, though, that all these translations represent the dominant Sunni point of view, that the ultimate meaning of the Qur’án is known only to God. The Shí’a read it differently, as exemplified by Maulana Muhammad `Alí’s Ahmadiyyah translation:

And none knows its interpretation save Alláh, and those firmly rooted in knowledge.

The Shí’a reading, that “only the knowers know” turns out to be the scriptural foundation for the idolatrous Shí’ah doctrine of ta’wil.

What’s so idolatrous about it? First, if men can achieve perfect, divine, knowledge, then men can become equals—or at least partners—of God. They can become infallible, as the Twelver Shí’a regard their “14 infallibles”. By the same reasoning, it is also an elitist doctrine, thereby contrary to what many Muslims consider to be the egalitarian spirit of Islám. Second, if the Qur’án is the perfect word of God and it can be understood perfectly, then the Qur’án itself is an idol; a divine image.

Ok, so it’s idolatrous, but what’s wrong with a little divine imagery? Here’s what’s wrong with it. If a man makes an idol of an image, he becomes enslaved to that image. If a man makes an idol of an idea, he becomes enslaved to that idea. If a man makes an idol of another man, he becomes enslaved to that man.

The whole thrust of Islam is against this kind of enslavement to anyone or anything but God, yet it is a hard lesson to learn. Even though the Qur’án makes it clear that Muhammad was a man who could err and be scolded by God, most Muslims have made Muhammad superhuman, and the Shí’a—particularly the Baháí—have made him an image of God.

We should not be surprised that Bahá’u’lláh, himself a Shí’a, puts such emphasis on the Shí’a interpretation of an ambiguous verse:

And yet, they themselves testify to this verse: “None knoweth the interpretation thereof but God and they that are well-grounded in knowledge.” And when He Who is well-grounded in all knowledge, He Who is the Mother, the Soul, the Secret, and the Essence thereof, revealeth that which is the least contrary to their desire, they bitterly oppose Him and shamelessly deny Him. —Kitáb-i-Íqán

Even as He saith: “None knoweth the meaning thereof except God and them that are well-grounded in knowledge.” And yet, they have sought the interpretation of the Book from those that are wrapt in veils, and have refused to seek enlightenment from the fountain-head of knowledge. —Kitáb-i-Íqán

So let’s not blame the translator, even though he cannot decide between the words “they” and “them” (who can blame him?).

Our Daily Bread: Uncertainty as Blasphemy

Bahá’u’lláh’s Book of Certitude, considered by many Bahá’ís to be his premier work, is primarily concerned with arguing that his predecessor, the Báb, was indeed what he claimed to be: the Voice, Image, and Manifestation of God. In making this defense of the Báb, Bahá’u’lláh cited the Qur’án nearly 150 times. It is an apology firmly rooted in Islamic scripture. It is not the purest form of revelation inasmuch as it is a book about revelation, to say nothing of the fact that it was written over a year before Bahá’u’lláh claimed to be a Manifestation of God.

If any slice of the Book of Certitude captures the essence of the book, it is perhaps the following passage about uncertainty, which concerns those Muslims who rejected the Báb on the basis that the Qur’án established that Muhammad was the “Seal of the Prophets”:

“Whoso sayeth ‘why’ or ‘wherefore’ hath spoken blasphemy!” Were these people to shake off the slumber of negligence and realize that which their hands have wrought, they would surely perish, and would of their own accord cast themselves into fire—their end and real abode. Have they not heard that which He hath revealed: “He shall not be asked of His doings?” [Qur’án 21.23] In the light of these utterances, how can man be so bold as to question Him, … ?

This passage declares it a crime (blasphemy) to question any Manifestation of God, or I suppose, any man who claims to be such a mouthpiece of God. If there should be any doubt as to what the word “certitude” meant to Bahá’u’lláh, this prohibition against any expression of doubt ought to help clear things up.

Our Daily Bread: What Does God Look Like?

If there’s one verse from the Qur’án that I consider enlightened, it’s this:

Whichever way ye turn, there is the face of God. (2:109/115)

What an inclusive, compassionate sentiment!

I’m not certain that the author intended it to be translated as above (Rodwell), though this is the most literal translation as far as I know. Some translators have utilized more figurative meanings of the word wajh (face), such as “purpose”. Even then I would consider the verse enlightened. It comes out to something similar, but I like “face” better. It’s more intimate.

Bahá’ís might recognize this verse from the Book of Certitude and Questions and Answers, wherein the verse is associated with issues regarding the direction of the Qiblih. That involves a rather geographic interpretation that distracts from the metaphysical. If Bahá’u’lláh is aware of a possible unitarian interpretation, he isn’t letting us know about it. Here’s what he says about the intent of this verse in the Íqán:

In the eyes of God, the ideal King, all the places of the earth are one and the same, excepting that place which, in the days of His Manifestations, He doth appoint for a particular purpose.

From this, it is not at all evident that Bahá’u’lláh recognizes the verse as a profound statement about the divine nature of all things. At least, though, he does appear to recognize the literal interpretation of the word wajh in Questions and Answers, or does he? Is it possible that he simply interprets the verse to be saying “all places are the same”? offers an interesting argument in favor of the literal interpretation of wajh.

Our Daily Bread: the Sanctity of Life

Today’s white slice of wisdom comes from The Tabernacle of Unity, a compilation of works of Bahá’u’lláh published in 2006. It advises Bahá’ís on the extent to which they ought to value human life:

O servants! This nether world is the abode of demons: Guard yourselves from approaching them. By demons is meant those wayward souls who, with the burden of their evil deeds, slumber in the chambers of oblivion. Their sleep is preferable to their wakefulness, and their death is better than their life.

What value, then, should be put on human life? It is well-known that Bahá’u’lláh was not against the death penalty, or even cruel punishment:

Should anyone intentionally destroy a house by fire, him also shall ye burn; should anyone deliberately take another’s life, him also shall ye put to death. —Kitáb-i-Aqdas

There’s no deterrent like execution, or better yet, a painful execution.

It seems fair to suggest that Bahá’u’lláh adopted the Islamic standard with regard to corporeal punishment, but would Bahá’u’lláh also advise that anyone authoritatively judged as a “demon” (say, a covenant breaker) be put out of their misery? Would Bahá’u’lláh also adopt an Islamic standard in that regard?

After all, their death is better than their life. Right?

To address this question, we might inquire whether Bahá’u’lláh might have ever ordered the assassination of an enemy. He had certainly been accused of such an act, but—not surprisingly—he claimed to be innocent of the crime.