Identifying Roots and Mechanisms of Religious Prejudice:
Bahá'u'lláh's Writings on the 12th Imám

By Armin Eschraghi

First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #83
Center for Bahá'í­ Studies: Acuto, Italy
July 3–6, 2008
(see list of papers from #83)


    The alleged physical existence of a 12th Imam who remains in hiding until the end of time lies at the heart of Twelver-Shiite theology and remains a key issue for legitimizing claims to both political as well as spiritual authority. Bahá'u'lláh, in his writings, confirms the Imamate in principle, but takes a very explicit and sometimes strongly worded stance against belief in existence of a Twelfth Imam. He outrightly denounces the dogma as an invention designed by certain elements within the early Islamic community in order to safeguard their own aspirations to power and control over ordinary believers. He also identifies the idea of a physically existent 12th Imam as a superstitious belief that has led Muslims astray and made them deviate from the straight path. Eventually, he claims, this even led to the Báb's martyrdom a thousand years later. Although the Báb never seems to have negated the existence of the 12th Imam as explicitly and directly as Bahá'u'lláh, nevertheless from 1847/8 onwards, there was no more room for such a doctrine as it contradicted the Báb's own claim to be this very promised One.

    Apart from theological considerations, a closer examination of the relevant passages in Bahá'u'lláh's writings reveals that while excoriating the Shiite Ulama — it is them he makes responsible, not the entire Shiite community — he actually engages in some sort of typological exegesis. Most of the passages show that the subject was not of mere historical interest to him, rather he used it to address those Bábís of his own time that did not recognize his claim to be the Manifestation of God foretold by the Báb.

    When treating the topic of belief in the Twelfth Imam, Bahá'u'lláh identifies several mechanisms that allow an erroneous belief to gradually become established and eventually be transformed into a dogma and a prerequisite of true faith, sometimes with very painful and dangerous repercussions. It is in this context that extensive treatment of the topic by him can also be understood as a warning to his own followers not to become heedless and consider themselves "chosen people who shall never go astray like the people of old." Such a reading is supported by passages from 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi, both of whom stressed the centrality of independent search after truth and the negation of blind imitation (taqlid), in fact one of the most characteristic and revolutionary principles in Bahá'u'lláh's entire revelation.

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