Web Talk for 150th Anniversary of Bahá’u’lláh’s Epistle of the Kings: Historical Context That Informs What Bahá’u’lláh Said To Whom and Why
First Wilmette Institute Web Talk with cc/subtitles!
To mark the 150th anniversary of Bahá’u’lláh’s Epistle of the Kings, Shahrokh Monjazeb, on November 27, 2016, gave a Wilmette Institute Web Talk called “A Divine Proclamation Like No Other! Bahá’u’lláh’s Súratu’l-Mulúk—Part 1: Historical Contextualization & Essential Features of the Tablet.” The title is a mouthful, to be sure. But the talk is a clear and engaging introduction to the very important tablet containing Bahá’u’lláh’s first proclamation of His mission to the kings and rulers of the world. The talk is also the first one on the Wilmette Institute’s YouTube channel that has closed captions/subtitles.
Why Is It Important to Study Bahá’u’lláh’s Proclamation to the Kings and Rulers of the World? Shahrokh’s opening question is a very important one. “Why,” indeed, “is it important to study Bahá’u’lláh’s proclamation to the kings and rulers of the world?” Perhaps the first answer is that the tablet has had and continues to have an impact that “is still reverberating today.” In a short detour—a brief reference to his January 16, 2016, Web Talk “Veiled and Concealed in the Hidden Habitation of His Inner Being: Revelation in the Síyah Chal”—he discussed the three stages in Bahá’u’lláh’s declaration over two decades: His hidden declaration on October 16, 1852, in the Síyah Chal; His open but private declaration that He was the Promised One of the Bayán—He Whom God Shall Make Manifest — made in a garden outside Baghdad, on April 22, 1863; and His open and public declaration of His mission in His “monumental” Epistle of the Kings in 1866 in Edirne.
Returning to the question of why it is important to study Bahá’u’lláh’s proclamation to the kings and rulers of the world, Shahrokh said that another reason is to “gain more insight into the proclamatory phase of Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation.” Yet another is the fact that the “world is going through critical crises and interesting times, all of which go back to Bahá’u’lláh’s proclamation, which is still reverberating today.” Before this tablet, Bahá’u’lláh’s writings had been “veiled” and “mystical.” The Epistle of the Kings, Shahrokh explained, opened the “‘third phase’ or the open/public Declaration phase of His Divine Mission. It also set the stage for a seven-year period (1866–1873) of intense and prolific summons and proclamation to the world’s most powerful ruling class.”
Turning to the external features of the Epistle of the Kings (which, along with its historical contextualization is the theme of the talk), Shahrokh said that the Epistle was revealed in Arabic; that the English translation is fifty pages long (in Summons of the Lord of Hosts 185–235, published in 2000 by the Universal House of Justice); that 72 percent was translated by Shoghi Effendi; and that, for a number of reason, its revelation is dated to the summer of 1866.
Before moving to other aspects of the Epistle of the Kings, Shahrokh sketched in the background of Bahá’u’lláh’s stay of four years, eight months, and 22 days—from December 12, 1863, to August 12, 1868—to Edirne to which He had been exiled. The two major events of this period were, first, the rebellion of Bahá’u’lláh’s half-brother and rupture within the Bábí community” and, second, “the public proclamation of Bahá’u’lláh’s Divine Mission.”
What Was the European Political Scene at the Time of the Revelation of The Epistle of the Kings? Shahrokh’s second question was, “What was the European political scene at the time of the revelation of the Epistle of Kings?” He answered by saying that knowledge of the political scene in Europe and the Middle East is important for understanding “why Bahá’u’lláh addressed the rulers in the way he did.” Shahrokh provided a very helpful map, noting that, at the time, Europe was considered the “center” of the planet. The map shows the United Kingdom (the British Empire being the most significant of several empires) and the Russian, French, Ottoman, and Prussian empires.
Next Shahrokh described seven periods into which nineteenth-century Europe can be divided. The editors strongly recommend your listening to the Web Talk for historical background because it is impossible to discuss in a short article the details of a very busy and volatile century. The seven periods are these:
- 1800–1815 Napoleonic Europe, during which Napoleon was defeated in 1815 at Waterloo, marking the end of the first French Empire.
- 1815–1848 The “Concert of Europe,” during which the Congress of Vienna “reshaped post-Napoleonic Europe to “create a balance of power among European nations,” under the guidance of Prince Klemons Von Metternich.
- 1848–1849 The Year of Revolutions. For the Bábís, there was the Conference of Badasht and Tahírih, the Báb’s declaration that He was the Qá’im of the House of Muhammad, and the revelation of the Bayán. In Europe, three events reshaped the map: liberal nationalists dismantled the “Concert of Europe,” leaving only Britain and Russia “unaffected”; short-lived republics were established in most of Europe but were soon crushed by conservative forces; and Louis Napoleon Bonaparte was elected president of the Second Republic in December 1848.
- 1850–1900 The Age of Nationalism and Colonialism, over which Bahá’u’lláh presided with His message of antinationalism and love for the world.
- 1849–1870 The Growth of Nationalism in Europe, with Louis Napoleon establishing the Second French Empire; the Crimean War (1854–56); the Franco-Prussian War (1870), which “transformed the political scene”; and the last phase of Italian unification, with Rome being annexed in 1870 and the Papal State becoming what it is today.
- 1871 German Unification, under Otto Von Bismarck, after the Prussian army routed the French, humiliating them by capturing their emperor and their capital and marching into Versailles (leaving French/German suspicion that lingers until the present time).
- 1871–1914 The European Alliance System, characterized by the “Three Emperor’s League” (Germany, Austro-Hungary, and Russia, 1873–87); the “Triple Alliance.” (Germany Austro-Hungary, and Italy, 1882–1915, and renewed in 1907 and 1912); and the “Triple Entente [against Germany]” (1907, France, Britain, and Russia).
Then Shahrokh provided pictures of and discussed the major influential monarchs of the Western World in 1866 (most Bahá’ís will be familiar with them; in the late 1960s and early 1970s one could purchase sets of the photographs at Green Acre Bahá’í School in Maine): Queen Victoria (British Empire); Emperor Napoleon III (Second French Empire); Emperor Alexander II (Russia); Emperor Franz Josef (Austria-Hungary); King Wilhelm I (Prussia); Pope Pius IX (Papal State); Sultan Abdu’l-Aziz (Ottoman Empire); and Násiru’d-Dín Shah of Qajar Dynasty (Persia), the latter two of which Bahá’u’lláh addressed in the Epistle of the Kings.
What Was Bahá’u’lláh’s Relationship with Representatives of Foreign Powers during His Exile to Edirne? Shahrokh’s third question had to do with Bahá’u’lláh’s relationship with representatives of foreign powers during His exile in Edirne. Shahrokh recommended a good book on the period written by Necati Alkan (Wilmette Institute faculty; holds a PhD in Middle Eastern Studies with a specialization in late Ottoman History; Assistant Professor at the University of Bamberg, Germany): Dissent and Heterodoxy in the Late Ottoman Empire: Reformers, Bábís and Bahá’ís. In the “No” column of representatives who had connections with Bahá’u’lláh is the Papal Empire. In the “No” to “highly unlikely” column is the Russian Empire, Russia being at war with Turkey. In the “Very Unlikely” column is the Prussian Empire. Among the “Yes” and “Very Likely” are the British, French, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires. Because Persia decided that it wanted the Bahá’í exiles back, Bahá’u’lláh had His followers obtain citizenship in the Ottoman Empire.
Who Did Bahá’u’lláh Address in the Momentous Epistle of the Kings? Shahrokh’s final question was about whom Bahá’u’lláh addressed in His momentous Epistle of the Kings. Shahrokh listed sixteen addressees, including Sultan ‘Abdu’l-Aziz, the “kings of the earth,” and the “kings of Christendom” as well as two ministers in Paris and ministers of the Ottoman Empire and the Persian Empire (by way of the Ottoman Empire). Bahá’u’lláh also addresses “the people,” the “Bird of Holiness,” inhabitants of Istanbul, “the people of malice,” “the people of Persia,” the “congregation of My ill-wishers, the “divines of the City,” the “wise men of the City and the philosophers of the world,” the “learned of the world,” and the “concourse of the faithful.”
Near the end of his Web Talk, Shahrokh devoted time to a brief overview of the contents of the Epistle of the Kings, pausing to read the opening lines of the Epistle in Arabic. He said that Bahá’u’lláh opened by “introducing Himself to the world’s monarchs and inviting them to read His Message with sincerity and open-mindedness.” In the second paragraph, He “discloses the character” of His divine mission and “exhorts” them to change their ways and follow God’s path for them. He reproaches the monarchs for ignoring the summons of the Báb and follows by telling them that He Himself is now the One to whom they must turn. His admonishments include their resolving “their political differences,” reducing their “weapons of war,” and discontinuing their over-taxing their subjects to finance their excessive spending. At the end of the collective summons to the kings He advices them to investigate the justification of for the cruelty and banishment meted out to Him and His followers and warns them that, if they ignore His warnings, they will suffer retribution.
Next Bahá’u’lláh turns to the kings of Christendom, the crowned heads of state of Europe, quoting Biblical scriptures to them and telling them that their God-given mandate is to “succour the innocent from the tyranny of the oppressor.”
After finishing his survey of the contents of the Epistle of the Kings, Shahrokh devoted almost half an hour to answering questions, providing thoughtful answers and additional insights and information.
Shahrokh Monjazeb is a scholar of Bahá’í history and sacred scripture. For over two decades he has been involved in translating the writings of the Central Figures of the Bahá’í Faith from Persian and Arabic into English. He is a published author and lecturer whose writings and presentations focus on Bahá’í sacred text and their literary and historical significance in the context of socio-spiritual condition of human society. Since 1991, Shahrokh has been a regular presenter at the annual conference of the Association for Bahá’í Studies and is the author of a monograph on Bahá’u’lláh entitled Bahá’u’lláh: A Brief Survey of His Life & Works. He currently assists the Bahá’í World Center, in a limited capacity, with the translation of Bahá’u’lláh’s and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s writings from their original Persian and Arabic.
Shahrokh’s Web Talk was the first of four, but the last three are only available in his Wilmette Institute Course “The Epistle of the Kings: A Comprehensive Study of the Súriy-i-Mulúk—Bahá’u’lláh’s First Proclamatory Tablet to the Kings of the Nineteenth Century,” which runs from November 27, 2016, through January 24, 2017. The second and third talks addressed Bahá’u’lláh and the Ottomans; the fourth talk will address all the other addressees. In 2018, Shahrokh is scheduled to offer another Web Talk and another course, probably on the Lawh-i-Sultán, Baha’u’lláh’s Tablet to the Shah delivered by Badí‘.
As in articles about Wilmette Institute Web Talks, the editors encourage you listen to the talks themselves, as it is impossible to capture the depths and details in short summaries. Shahrokh’s talk is now available on the Wilmette Institute’s YouTube channel; it comes with optional closed captioning and subtitles.