The Position of Mírzá Yahyá Núrí Subh-i-Azal:
Some aspects of Azalí Anti-Baha'i Polemic and Baha'i Apologetics

By Stephen Lambden

First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #8
Newcastle, England
December 8–10, 1995
(see list of papers from #8)

    The exact nature of the position of Mirza Yahya Nuri, Subh-i-Azal ("The Morn of Eternity," 1830-1912) following the martyrdom of the Bab (1850) has long been a subject of Baha'i-Azali debate. The Bab wrote a number of Tablets to Mirza Yahya and Baha'u'llah as well as an Arabic Wasiyyat namih ("Will and Testament") in which (among other things) Yahya's position and future role were indicated. From 1849-50 Yahya was given elevated titles and a key future role in the religion of the Bab. The nature of this role has been variously understood and widely misrepresented so as to discredit the purpose and claims of Baha'u'llah.

    No academically informed biography of Yahya has to date been written. His numerous Persian and Arabic writings have hardly been studied at all. The quasi-Babi musings and anti-Baha'i sentiments of Yahya and his Azali supporters are expressed in a multitude of Persian and Arabic writings and a few texts in western languages. Directly or indirectly they continue to exert a distortive influence upon the understanding of the Babi and Baha'i religions. Towards the end of his mission the Bab wrote to Baha'u'llah (1817-1892) through Mirza Yahya, referring to him by means of the abjad value of his name (Husayn-'Ali = 238), instructing him to protect and take care of his half-brother. This is exactly what Baha'u'llah did for more than a decade; according to his Lawh-i-Sarraj for no less than twenty years (1846 to 1866?). Prior to his semi-secret Ridvan declaration (April 22-May 3, 1863) and complete break with Yahya during the mid-Adrianople period ("The Most Great Separation" 1866) Baha'u'llah basically acted as a leading Babi; to quote Shoghi Effendi he "appeared in the guise of, and continued to labor as, one of the foremost disciples of the Bab" (God Passes By, 128). This initial support of Yahya is reflected in such early Tablets as the pre-Kurdistan Lawh-i-kull al-Ta'am ("Tablet of All Food" c. 1270 = late 1853-54) and the (fragmentary) Surat al-kifaya ("The Sura of the Sufficiency" 1854-57?). It is somewhat more explicitly stated in later Tablets, including the Surat al-haykal ("The Sura of the Temple" c. 1873?) where we read of one upon whom was sprinkled a "dewdrop" from the "Fathomless Deep of the Ocean of Knowledge" and who was elevated to such an extent that "all [Babis] rose up in praise of him [Yahya]." Baha'u'llah protected Yahya and even revealed Tablets which were dispatched under his name.

    Despite the educative and loving care extended by Baha'u'llah to Yahya, his younger half-brother ultimately attempted to kill him, and had earlier pronounced the death sentence upon the prominent Babi Mirza Asadu'llah Khu'i, entitled Dayyan ("the Judge") by the Bab.

    In view of his half-brother's politically subversive activities and murderous attempts to repress Babi challenges to his inadequate leadership role--reflected in such writings as his possibly early Kitab al-wahid (185?) and al-Mustayqiz ("Sleeper Awakened," c.1854-55)--it is astonishing that Baha'u'llah maintained a 'noble silence,' a 'messianic secret' for so long (from 1850 to 1863-66).

    According to Baha'i sources it was the corruption of Yahya by Sayyid Muhammmad Isfahani (d. 1872)--the Antichrist of the Babi dispensation--which led him to hubristic self-deification and ungodly ways.

    It was ultimately during the mid-1860s that Baha'u'llah made a complete break with Yahya and began to proclaim his own divine mission more openly to the Babis and to all mankind. This break was expressed scripturally with the revelation of one of the several Tablets entitled Surat al-Amr ("The Sura of the Command"). Hundreds, if not thousands of the Tablets of Baha'u'llah of the Adrianople period (1863-68) counter the contentions of the supporters of Mirza Yahya, Subh-i-Azal (= early Azali Babism) e.g. the Lawh-i-Sarraj (c.1867) and Kitab-i-Badi' ("The Wondrous Book" 1867).

    Anti-Baha'i Azali polemic has long directly or indirectly informed modern orientalist scholarship, including the writings of E. G. Browne (d. 1926) and of A. L. M. Nicholas (d. 1939), who, in 1933, wrote his brief quasi-Azali Qui est le successeur du Bab? This influence is also marked in the anti-Baha'i writings of Christian opponents of the Baha'i Faith. Without adequate consultation of primary sources Christian missionary and other anti-Baha'i writers have repeated Azali contentions and misrepresented the relationship between Baha'u'llah and his younger half-brother. An example of this is to be found in the Presbyterian missionary William M. Miller's The Baha'i Faith: Its History and Teachings (South Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1974) which makes much use of materials supplied by Jelal Azal (d. 1971), an anti-Baha'i grandson of Mirza Yahya.

    In this paper these and related doctrinal issues will be examined with a view to clarifying the Baha'i viewpoint and exposing the inadequacy of aspects of neo-Azali anti-Baha'i polemic.

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