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A Book similar to the Quran

Posted by Sen on June 3, 2018


In the “Bihár” it is recorded:

“In our Qá’im there shall be four signs from four Prophets, Moses, Jesus, Joseph, and Muḥammad. The sign from Moses, is fear and expectation; from Jesus, that which was spoken of Him; from Joseph, imprisonment and dissimulation; from Muhammad, the revelation of a Book similar to the Qur’án.”

In his Ketab-e Iqan, Baha’u’llah cites a prophetic tradition about four characteristics of four different prophets, that will also be characteristic of the Qa’im, the promised messiah of the Shiah tradition. The last of these characteristics, the one the Qa’im shares with Muhammad, is “the revelation of a Book similar to the Qur’an.” Baha’u’llah gives his source as the Behar al-Anwar, a huge compilation of mainly Shiah traditions, the life work of Mohammad-Baqer Majlesi, who died around 1700. The Behar became a standard work of Shiah scholarship, especially in the 19th century.

Contemporary Shiah apologists have made the citation in the Iqan a point of critique, because the form Baha’u’llah cites differs from its form in the most widely used modern edition of the Behar al-Anwar.

A quick internet search will confirm that there are many variations in the Behar, and that the particular tradition Baha’u’llah cites exists in even more variant forms, since the Behar is not the only text that transmits it. Neither of these features is surprising, given that the Behar is a compilation of traditions that existed in variant forms when Majlesi and his helpers did their work. Moreover the way a compilation is copied and transmitted differs from the way a work by a philosopher or jurist or theologian would be studied, copied and transmitted. Kazemi-Moussavi’s article on the Behar in Encyclopaedia Iranica notes that “the earlier volumes of the Behar gained relatively wide recognition and were repeatedly copied by Majlesi’s pupils and admirers, who often added or omitted material…”

And why not? The text itself was not sacrosanct, it was a collection of traditions that were sacrosanct, arranged by topics. Majlesi’s pupils and admirers, who according to the Iranica article altered so much, participated in the writing and knew it was a work in progress. Majlesi himself knew he had not always obtained good sources: he wrote in Book 13, the book of the Mahdi, “The copy from which we have quoted this report has been tempered with and most of its statements are interpolated. Hence the researcher should compare the text with that of Ghaibat Nomani.” So if a copyist thought he knew of a better version of a tradition, or found a tradition that had been omitted or was not in the chapter where he expected to find it, of course he would make the correction or addition, so as to make the compilation as complete and accurate as possible. A copyist might even add a version that he did not consider stronger, simply for the sake of completeness. In addition to variant versions, this produced many duplications within the compilation.

Copies of the Behar would be made or ordered by individuals according to their particular interests. Very few scholars or libraries would have a complete text, of all 26 volumes. This was the state of play in Baha’u’llah’s time: individual volumes on particular themes circulated and were copied by hand, a few volumes were lithographed. If Baha’u’llah saw a copy of volume 13 (on the Mahdi) in Baghdad, it would probably differ from the copy of volume 13 that the editors of the Tabriz lithograph edition later used. The tradition that Baha’u’llah found in a copy of Behar in Baghdad (for example), might have been put there by a copyist who took it from a source he thought to be more reliable, or more suited to his purposes in making the copy.


The first complete edition of the Behar was lithographed in Tehran and Tabriz between 1885 and 1898, so we can guess that the traditions recorded in the later volumes would only be becoming widely available – and standardized in form – around the time of Baha’u’llah’s death in 1892. From that point on, new traditions are not inserted into the text, but rather added in appendices. The Tabriz edition is not a critical edition: it does not seek to recreate Majlesi’s original compilation or retrieve the earliest form of each tradition that is cited. Some steps towards a critical edition have been taken in the Tehran edition, which began publication in 1956. It is based on multiple manuscripts of the Behar, as well as lithographs that had been made of individual books and of course it uses the Tabriz edition. Persian translations of some volumes have also appeared, some from Majlesi himself, but that is not relevant here since Baha’u’llah refers to an Arabic text.

The tradition that says that the promised one will appear with four signs from four prophets is found in the Behar in various forms. One Shiah critique of the teachings of Baha’u’llah has a convenient table (see page 548) of four variants found in (apparently) the Tehran edition. In the first (51:216) the sign from Muhammad is the sword. In the second (51:218) it is that he walks in his [Muhammad’s] path and explains his works, then he puts his [unsheathed] sword on his shoulder for eight months and continues to kill the enemies of God until God is satisfied. In the third iteration (51:224), the sign from Muhammad is that the promised one is guided by Muhammad’s guidance and walks in his ways. The fourth iteration (52:347) is similar to the second, except that a little Persian has crept into the Arabic.

What Baha’u’llah says

Baha’u’llah quotes the tradition in the Iqan as referring to the sufferings of the Bab and his followers. The reference to a Book similar to the Qur’an comes in incidentally, because that was part of the tradition in the form that Baha’u’llah and his readers knew it. While Babis might say that the Bab’s Qayyum al-Asma’ is a book similar to the Quran, that is not Baha’u’llah’s argument. He is concerned rather with explaining to the Bab’s uncle how it can be that the Qa’im has come – in the person of the Bab – and contrary to Islamic expectations he has not conquered the world, but has been imprisoned and executed. Baha’u’llah writes:

… mention of the sorrows, the imprisonment and afflictions inflicted upon that Essence of divine virtue has been made in the former traditions. In the “Behar” it is recorded:
In our Qa’im (فی قائِمِنا) there shall be four signs (علاماتٍ) from four Prophets (نَبيٍّ), Moses, Jesus, Joseph, and Muhammad. The sign from Moses, is fear and expectation (الخَوفُ و الانتظار); from Jesus, that which was spoken of Him (ما قالُوا فی حَقِّهِ); from Joseph, imprisonment and dissimulation (السِّجنُ وَ التَّقيَّةُ); from Muhammad, the revelation of a Book similar to the Qur’an (يَظْهَرُ بِآثارٍ مِثلِ القرآنِ).

The sign from Jesus

The sign or similarity (many texts use شبه {similarity} rather than علاماتٍ (sign)) between the Bab and Jesus, is “that which was spoken of Him.” Baha’u’llah and his readers would have understood what was meant, and it is spelled out in some variants of this tradition. It means that they said he was killed, but he was not killed. For most orthodox Muslims this means that Jesus did not die on the cross but was somehow saved.

Either he was taken up to heaven alive, or God arranged a substitute to be executed in his place (substitutionary atonement squared) – hence the rumour that Jesus traveled to Kashmir and is buried in Srinagar.

For those Muslims and Quran scholars who are less magically inclined, the Quran verse (4:157) that says “they said (in boast), ‘We killed Christ Jesus…’ but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, … Nay, Allah raised him up unto Himself” means that the Jewish and Roman authorities thought they were the agents of his defeat, when in fact they were tools, carrying out God’s plan for Jesus’ spiritual triumph though an act of absolute self-sacrifice. The difficulty with this satisfying resolution is the words “nor crucified him” – but that is another story.

The sign from Joseph

The sign or similarity between Joseph and the Bab is “imprisonment and dissimulation.” The Bab, like Joseph in the Quranic story, at first concealed his true identity and later unfolded it. However some variants of the tradition omit the word “dissimulation.”

The sign from Moses

The sign from Moses, fear and expectation, refers in the first case to Moses’ fear, as Baha’u’llah explains in the Iqan itself (p. 53):

… He saw two men engaged in fighting. One of them asked the help of Moses against his opponent. Whereupon, Moses intervened and slew him. … The report of this incident spread throughout the city, and Moses was full of fear (خوف), as is witnessed by the text of the Book.

Luke 21:24 They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
There will be signs (العلامات) in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive (الخوف و الانتظار) of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. (New International Version)

The ‘expectation’ may have no specific referent, since ‘fear and expectation’ (or fear and waiting in uncertainty) is a common enough pair. One of the versions of this tradition (in a different edition of the Behar) gives the sign as “fear and being hidden” (اما من موسي فالخوف و الغيبة), which would refer to the same period of Moses’ life, when ‘Moses was full of fear.’

Another reason for thinking that ‘fear and expectation’ refers to a single characteristic, rather than two different periods in Moses’ life, is that the same pair of words appears in some Arabic translations of the Gospel of Luke, in an eschatological context. This passage has nothing to do with Moses, but it might have influenced the wording of the eschatological tradition relating to the characteristics of the Qa’im.

Conclusion

I have shown above that the tradition has many variant forms, even within the various editions of the Behar that are available online. An internet search using Arabic terms will reveal many more variants, in the Behar and in other sources, but thus far it does not yield a source in which the Qa’im’s similarity to Muhammad is the revelation of a book similar to the Qur’an. Yet we can be reasonably certain that a textual tradition of the Behar existed that did contain this phrase, since as I have noted above, Baha’u’llah does not point to it in his argument. His argument is about the sufferings of the Bab being foretold. If he had made an argument that the Bab indeed revealed a book like the Qur’an, one might suspect that, God forbid, he had deceitfully inserted the phrase into the text. But it comes in incidentally, along with the signs of Moses, Joseph and Jesus that support his argument about the suffering of the Prophets.

We can also be reasonably confident that the form in which Baha’u’llah cited this tradition was one that he expected his readers to recognize – it would make no sense to cite a form strange to them, given that the revelation of a book like the Quran is incidental. In other words, we can be reasonably confident that there is a manuscript tradition with multiple exemplars, spread at least over Iraq and southern Iran (where the Bab’s uncle, for whom the Iqan was written, came from). We can even look as far as Tehran, since Baha’u’llah was reading the Arabic works of Majlisi even in his childhood. Perhaps we should search even wider, because the early anti-Bahai writers in Persian and Arabic did not point to this blasphemous phrase about “a book resembling the Quran” in their critiques of Baha’u’llah. The most likely reason is that they knew the same tradition, and recognized that it weakened their argument that there could be no Prophet after Muhammad. Therefore, they were silent.

باری، تحيّر است از اين عباد که چگونه با اين اشارات واضحه لائحه از حقّ احتراز نموده‏اند مثلاً ذکر حزن و سجن و ابتلاء که بر آن خلاصه فطرت الهی وارد شد در اخبار قبل ذکر شده فِی البِحار ( إنَّ فی قائِمِنا اَربَعَ علاماتٍ من اَرْبَعَةِ نَبيٍّ مُوسی و عيسی و يُوسُفَ وَ مُحَمَّدٍ امّا العَلامَةُ مِن موسيَ الخَوفُ و الانتظار وَ اَمّا العَلامَةُ مِن عيسی ما قالُوا فی حَقِّهِ و العَلامَةُ مِن يُوسُفَ السِّجنُ وَ التَّقيَّةُ وَ العَلامَةُ مِن مُحَمَّدٍ يَظْهَرُ بِآثارٍ مِثلِ القرآنِ )

The criticisms of Baha’u’llah as regards the form of this hadith emerge only after the lithograph editions had become current and create the illusion of a standard text. And they are strongest of all more recently, when internet searches and the systematic support of the Iranian government for anti-Bahai polemics have made the points easier to score and more rewarding. Every Arabic reader, and not just the scholars, can now look online to find what appears to be the authoritative text of the Behar. The textual history and older forms of transmission are lost to awareness in the mist of the electronic medium.

If we want to find the manuscript tradition of the Behar that Baha’u’llah and his expected readers knew, an online search will not find it, at least not for the present. There may be exemplars of the relevant volume of the right version of the Behar in libraries, but they are not likely to be the first things digitalized. We will probably have to dive into the dust and smell of manuscripts held in Iran and Iraq, neither of which is a recommended destination, today, for a scholar seeking to prove Baha’u’llah right and his critics wrong. For the present then, the only research I can suggest on this is to look for pre-lithograph copies of the Behar held in collections that are safely accessible. It might also be interesting to look at what the editors of the printed editions say about their sources and procedures, and go back to the relevant source. Perhaps the tradition referring to a book resembling the Quran was there, but the editors, their sensitivities heightened by the Babi upheavals, decided to exclude it.

I have thus far searched without success in one manuscript of volume 13 dating from the correct period. It is online here, and dates from 1278AH (see page 585). The relevant sections are in Chapter 18, beginning at the bottom of page 146, and Chapter 32, see the middle of page 148. This manuscript corresponds closely to volumes 51 to 53 in the printed editions.

I would like to thank “Ozzy GM” for posing the question, and helping to find a partial answer.

Short link: https://wp.me/pcgF5-2Xx

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2 Responses to “A Book similar to the Quran”

  1. lapistuner said

    Thanks for the article Sen.

  2. stardust said

    A couple of notes:

    1- The Book you cited from the Shia critique is available in the English language. Here is a link to the section being discussed. It’s in the spirit of Independent Investigation of Truth to allow the audience to read what the critique has to say in his own words:

    https://books.google.com/books?id=LWLBAwAAQBAJ&pg=PA229&lpg=PA229&dq=%22In+this+section+Baha%E2%80%99u%E2%80%99llah+explicitly+mentions+that+he+is+narrating+from+the+book%22&source=bl&ots=8l14amwH_x&sig=NQQK7RLIhEPJTAMyMi13GMzAVxk&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjjy9brvbjbAhW0PH0KHVPgDccQ6AEIKTAA#v=onepage&q=%22In%20this%20section%20Baha%E2%80%99u%E2%80%99llah%20explicitly%20mentions%20that%20he%20is%20narrating%20from%20the%20book%22&f=false

    2- The book Bihar al-anwar is a compilation of Shia narrations gathered from many different Shia books. The author records the names of all the books in the preface of the first volume. Those books are all freely and easily available today. For all I know, the traditions mentioned by Baha’u’llah exist in none of those books. In fact, I have personally used multiple digitized platforms and search engines to search through different editions of about 7000 volumes of Shia and non-Shia scriptural books. I have even used variant wordings. Nothing comes up that is even slightly similar to Baha’u’llah’s claim about “the revelation of a Book similar to the Qur’an.” The vast majority of these digitized books, if not all of them, are based on currently available manuscripts that predate both the book of Bihar and Baha’u’llah.

    3- It is not a habit of Shia scholars to omit or add material to the works of others as claimed in the article you mentioned (ironically the author provides no source for this claim). And even if this did occur, the tradition being discussed would not have been and would be a famous one as you yourself stated: “The reference to a Book similar to the Qur’an comes in incidentally, because that was part of the tradition in the form that Baha’u’llah and his readers knew it.” If that tradition was so famous, then why can’t anyone find it in any book neither typed nor manuscript?

    4- Fortunately, there are also manuscripts of the book of Bihar available online if you don’t trust the digitized versions: I easily found a manuscript of the vol 13 (the book on the Mahdi) completed in 1278 A.H. the same year Baha’u’llah wrote the book of Iqan:

    http://dl.nlai.ir/UI/3483f259-1c3a-41da-812b-1e3e800be9e0/LRRView.aspx?History=true

    And here is another old and undated manuscript:

    http://dl.nlai.ir/UI/4df0e25c-7f01-453f-9050-87fa864502c1/LRRView.aspx?History=true

    I’m sure many other manuscripts are held in European and American universities where scholars will have no problem accessing.

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