The Baha’i Faith and the Advent Movement

The Advent Movement was a part of the Second Great Religious Awakening in America and extended to most parts of the world. Independently of each other, thousands of preachers, scholars and laypeople, from different denominations, began to study the prophecies of the Bible and concluded that Christ would return some time in the 1840’s based partly on the 2300 days of Daniel 8:14. Some of the prominent prophecy expositors of the Protestant world were Johan Bengel in Germany, Robert Gaussen in Switzerland, Adam Clarke, Edward Elliott and Edward Irving in Great Britain. In Sweden thousands of child preachers between 1840 and 1844 preached on the imminent Second Coming and Judgment Day (Froom). Père Lambert and Manuel Lacunza, a Jesuit priest, preached the doctrine of premillennialism and the Second Coming of Christ to the Catholic world in South America and Southern Europe. In the United States of America, the Advent Movement had its greatest impact. William Miller, Josiah Litch and Joshua Himes were leading figures in this movement. Their message that Christ would return in 1843/44 was spread to every part of America. It was as if Christianity all over the world suddenly woke up to end time prophecy after more than a millennia of slumber.

Seventh-Day Adventists believe that the Advent Awakening was a Divinely inspired movement meant to bring the world’s attention to the imminent Second Coming of Christ. But what about the Muslim world? Did they have a witness in the 19th Century? And did the movement actually make a lasting impression on Muslims? The answer is yes. To most people, the Baha’i Faith seems to be a random, independent world religion springing up in the 1840’s. But in fact it is a relic of the Advent Movement in Islam, misguided after the Great Disappointment in 1844. The existence of the Baha’i movement is a testimony to the fact that Muslims on a large scale expected the Second Coming of Christ in the same year as the Christians. It shows a close eschatological connection between the two religions, and adds credibility to the Seventh-Day Adventist claim that God was preparing the whole world for the Second Coming in the early 19th Century.

The Advent Movement had one of its most prominent witnesses in Africa, the Middle East and India. His name was Joseph Wolff. Born in Germany to a Rabbi family in 1795, Wolff converted to Christianity in 1812, studied Theology, Arabic and Persian and headed out as a missionary in 1826 (Jacobs). For 19 years he travelled all over the Middle East, Central Asia and other places, where he preached the gospel and the Advent doctrine to Jews, Christians, Hindus and Muslims in both high and low places. His audience included kings, sheiks, muftis, shahs, queens and even American presidents (Froom 461). Joshua Brooks, who reviewed Wolff’s travels, said of him: “No individual has perhaps given greater publicity to the doctrine of the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, than has this well known Missionary to the world.” (Froom 603). Perhaps this is an exaggeration? But doubtless, Wolff’s influence was wide indeed.

Wolff’s message was of a gospel centered and highly prophetic nature: “I wrote,” he says, “proclamations to Turks, and Jews, and Christians, in the Arabic language; in which I exhorted them to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, to be the Son of God, to have died for our sins on the cross, to have risen again, and that, according to my conviction produced by the reading of Daniel, he will come again in the year 1847.” (Froom 474). Like Miller, Wolff’s conviction of a specific date of Christ’s return was based on his calculations of the 2300 days in Daniel 8:14. Throughout his travels, he found, to his surprise, an already existing expectation of the Second Coming of Christ among the Muslim population. He writes in his report: “I spent six days with the children of Rechab (Beni Arhab). … With them were children of Israel of the tribe of Dan, who reside near Terim in Hatramawt, who expect, in common with the children of Rechab, the speedy arrival of the Messiah in the clouds of heaven.” (Wolff, Narrative of a Mission to Bokhara 52). Joseph Wolff also writes: “The Arabs of Hodeydah [in Yemen] are in possession of a book, called “Seera,” which gives notice of the second coming of Christ, and His reign in glory; and it says that great events would take place in the year 1840.” (Wolff, Travels and Adventures 506). Why were the Muslims that Wolff met expecting the speedy arrival of the Messiah and “great things” to happen in 1840? I searched in vain for a clue as to which book Wolff refers to. The word “Seera” is an Arabic word meaning “life journey” or “biography”. Which biography that is here referred to is impossible to know for certain. Usually the word Seera refers to Sirat Rasul Allah the biography of Muhammad by Ibn Ishaq, a Muslim historian from Medina (704-770 AD). But this book is not about eschatology. It is perhaps a Hadith (sayings of Muhammad according to tradition), because the Hadiths do mention the Second Coming of Christ.

In order for us to understand the Muslim expectations we need to have an overview of Islamic eschatology. The Qur’an itself speaks of the Second Coming of Christ (Qur’an 43:61). Some of the most reliable Hadiths (Islamic traditions) testify that the prophet Muhammad said that the “son of Mary” will descend to the earth as a righteous ruler, destroy the cross, kill the pigs and end poverty (Huraira). According to Islamic eschatology, Christ’s coming will be preceded by the coming of a figure called Mahdi. Though all Muslims believe that Mahdi will appear, Sunni and Shia Muslims differ on the identity of Mahdi. For Sunnis, Mahdi is a leader of Islam who is not yet born. For Shias (especially Twelver Shias), Mahdi is the Twelfth and final Imam, in direct lineage from Muhammad, who disappeared in the 9th century and who will reappear again on Judgment Day (Ali 76). This hidden state of the Imam is sometimes referred to as Occultation. Though invisible, it is believed that the Twelfth Imam is still present with the true followers in a hidden state during the Occultation. The Imam’s reappearance is supposed to “set in motion a course of events ultimately leading to the destruction of the world and the end of time” (Amanat 237). He is also the precursor to Christ’s return. Mrs Meer Hassan Ali observed in the early 1800’s: “it is the general belief amongst Muslims, founded on the authority of their most revered and valued writers, that Imam Mahdi will appear with Jesus Christ at his second coming; and with whom, they declare and firmly believe, he will act in concert to purge the world of sin and wickedness.” (Ali 76). The appearance of Mahdi was therefore the beginning of the end time Judgment Day and synonymous with the Second Advent of Jesus Christ.

Among the Shias, there were also prophecies about when Mahdi would reappear. Abbas Amanat explains: “Though no specific time was ever set for his advent, it was generally believed that his revolt (khuruj) would occur at the turn of the millennium after his Occultation.” (Amanat 237). According to the Islamic calendar (which is a lunar calendar with 354 days to a year, started in 622 A.D.), Imam Mahdi went into Occultation in the year 260 A.H. (873 A.D.) (Amanat 237). One thousand lunar years later would bring us to 1260 A.H. This is when Madhi would appear: “The Muslims all believe that Mahdi, the standing proof as he is called, will visit the earth at a future period; they are said to possess prophecies, that lead them to expect the twelve hundred and sixtieth year of the Hegirah, as the time for his coming.” (Ali 76). The 1260th year of the Islamic Calendar “happens” to occur in the year 1844, according to our calendar. Christopher Buck captures the spirit in Persia, the Shia capital, at this time:

“Messianic fervor had been ignited across Persia over the expected return of the Twelfth Imam, who was said to have disappeared in the Islamic year of 260 AH and who had gone into occultation for a period of 1,000 lunar years. Thus, in the Islamic year 1260 AH (1844), Persia was charged with what scholars call ‘eschatological tension.’” (Buck 68).

Thus, a large part of the Muslim world was looking for Christ’s Return in the same year as the Christians in Europe and North America.

This spirit is doubtless what Joseph Wolff experienced as he travelled through the Muslim countries in the 1830’s and 40’s, preaching the Advent of Jesus. Wolff was even considered by some Muslims to be Mahdi’s forerunner or even Mahdi himself (Wolff, Travels and Adventures 410, 482). Other Advent preachers and scholars had noticed the curious “coincidence” that both Christians and Muslims expected Christ to return in 1844. John Fry, rector of Desford, England, observed that “Mahomedans in various parts of the world have their expectations fixed on the same year AD 1844 which strangely happens to be the twelve hundred and sixtieth of this era dated from their own epoch…” (Fry 371). And he also added: “This coincidence in the expectation of so large body of mankind with the general prospects of the people who wait redemption in the Church of Christ is certainly not to be disregarded” (Fry 371). If there indeed was a significant Advent Movement in the Muslim world, we ought to find some remnants of this today. Following John Fry’s recommendation, we will take a closer look at this ‘eschatological tension’ in the Islamic Middle East.

We find one of Islam’s most prominent messianic advent movements in shaykhism. A protruding Persian theologian, Shaykh Ahmad Aḥsa’i, was born in the late 18th century in Iran and eventually settled in Karbala, Iraq (MacEoin 674). Even though Ahsa’i never intended to start a separate movement, eventually a school of thought developed from his teachings called shaykhism. He eventually came under suspicion by some established clergy. But he strongly defended his orthodoxy. According to Vahid Rafati, Shaykh Ahmad’s basic eschatology focuses on the Day of Judgment and the Advent om Mahdi, the latter of which “occupies a special place in Shaykh Ahmad’s works and played a significant role in the subsequent development of the movement” (Rafati 104). Because of the suspicion and persecution that the movement faced, many of Shaykh Ahmad’s prophetic predictions were given in very esoteric language. Concerning the 1844 date, Rafati states: “Shaykh Ahmad, in one of his letters, foretold the year of the appearance of the Qa’im [Mahdi] in mysterious language… According to this prophecy, the year 1260/1844 was the year in which the Qa’im would appear.” (Rafati 181). We are not given specific information as to how Ahsa’i got to this date, but the general expectation among the Shias might suffice for inspiration.

The messianic movement gained even greater momentum after Asha’i’s death in 1826. His undisputed successor was Sayyed Kazim Rashti (MacEoin, Encyclopædia Iranica). Rashti made specific predictions of the Mahdi’s return in 1844 based on the same millennial understanding of his Occultation. He predicted that Mahdi would appear in the thirteenth century of the Islamic Calendar, and that the “voice of God”, i.e. Mahdi, will “be heard after a thousand years” after the Occultation (Rafati 181). During Rashti’s time, the Shaykhi movement grew into a messianic movement with followers from all ranks – including clergy, statesmen, peasants, governors and merchants. This success brought upon them persecution from high-ranking clergy, which they hoped for deliverance from by the coming Messiah (Amanat 241). The fact that the religious leaders got suspicious and nervous over the Shaykhi movement shows that it was not merely a small insignificant part of the Shia world.

In early 1844, at the peak of the movement’s eschatological expectations Rashti died. Prior to his death, he was asked by his followers who would succeed him. “God has an affair which he shall bring to maturity,” was his cryptic, but well calculated answer (MacEoin, The Messiah of Shiraz 140). This “affair” or “cause” was an esoteric name for the Twelfth Imam. He also said: “Are you not content that I should die and the cause of your Imam be made manifest?” (141). And even more remarkably he said: “O people! My passing is near, yet you have not understood what I have been saying to you, nor have you comprehended my purpose. After me, there shall appear a great cause and a severe test and you shall fall into disagreements with one another. We have been but as a herald for the great cause.” (141). Clearly, Rashti saw the Shaykhi movement as a herald of the Second Advent. In its own peculiar way, the movement hoped to prepare Muslims for the Advent of Christ. Its explicit mission was identical to the mission of the Crier movement of Sweden, of the Millerite movement in America, and of all the other prophetic movements in Christianity. This makes Shaykhism a valid Islamic candidate for membership in the global Advent Movement.

In May 1844 the Islamic Advent movement in Persia took a drastic turn. Rashti was spared to live through the Great Disappointment and to experience the mockery and fanaticism that followed it. After his death, the Shaykhi movement split into two groups, a more moderate group under Karim Kahn Kermani, and a more unorthodox under one of Rashti’s students, Sayyid Ali Muhammad Shirazi (MacEoin, Encyclopædia Iranica). The latter movement became known as Babism. Some of Rashti’s messages were interpreted to mean that the Mahdi had already arrived and dwelt among them. When Rashti died, many of his followers scattered in search of the Promised One. In May 1844, Sayyid Shirazi proclaimed that he was the long awaited Twelfth Imam and the Báb (Amanat 241, 242). Kermani worked hard on denouncing the Báb and his claims because they “threatened… to further damage Shaikhism in the eyes of the Shiʿite ʿolamaʾ at large.” (MacEoin, Encyclopædia Iranica). Kermani’s theological battle against Babism reminds us of a similar struggle against fanaticism that the Millerite movement experienced after the Great Disappointment in 1844. Kermani did all he could to demonstrate that Shaykh Ahmad was orthodox, and his movement eventually died out, gave up some of their peculiar ideas and merged with orthodox Shia Islam; but not so with Babism. The Báb declared the abrogation of Islamic Law (Sharia) and the establishment of a new religious system. The literal events of the eschatology of Islam – such as the resurrection – was spiritualized and claimed to have been fulfilled. A large part of the Shaykhis joined the movement, including members of the Qajar court. The Báb called on his followers to assemble in Karbala, Iraq, to prepare for the final Jihad against both Sunnis and non-Babi Shias (MacEoin, Encyclopædia Iranica). But before reaching Karbala, he was arrested in Shiraz, Iran, and remained a prisoner until his execution in 1850. The jihad-tendencies of the Babis led to armed conflict between the Babis and the governments. The fact that Babism was so successful in moving people and even threaten the political power of the Qajar, testifies to the underlying expectations of the advent of a messianic figure in 1844 in a large part of Shia Islam. It also reveals the desire among the Shaykhis to find an explanation for their disappointed hope in the coming Messiah on a specific date. Therefore, they were eager to accept the claims of a messianic figure even though the expected literal events were not realized.

The Báb’s execution in Tabriz by the government of Persia put a halt to the Babi movement. But the movement did not die, it only evolved into a different kind of messianic movement. In his works, the Báb spoke of another messianic figure that would come (Cole, Encyclopædia Iranica). Mirza Hosayn Ali, a follower of the Báb, gradually took over the leadership of the movement from his half-brother and guided the movement towards a more non-violent and ecumenical direction. He took the name Bahaullah (Glory of God) and the movement became known as the Baha’i Faith. He acknowledged all Holy Books of the world and based his teachings both on parts from the Quran and the Bible. Eventually, he proclaimed himself to be the Promised One of all world religions. In a letter to Napoleon III he proclaimed himself to be the returned Christ. Many Babis joined the Baha’i faith. The Baha’is believe that through globalization and principles of virtue, world peace can be achieved and this marks the fulfilment of the mission of the Promised One of all world religions. Bahaullah tried to unite all world religions and claimed that all the Holy Books were of God: “Manifold are the verses that have been repeatedly revealed in all the heavenly Books and the holy Scriptures” (Bahaullah 101). The movement spread to America and many parts of the world. They consider themselves to be the sixth world religion. Today the movement claims more than 6 million followers.

The Modern Baha’i theologians struggle to reconcile all world religions. They need to deny that the Bible is fully reliable and inspired. Colin Dibdin, a Baha’i teacher, put it this way: “as a collection of the writings of independent and human authors, it is not necessarily historically accurate. Nor can the words of its writers, although inspired, be strictly defined as ‘The Word of God’ in the way the original words of Moses and Jesus could have been.” (Dibdin). This statement stands in conflict with the fact that Bahaullah’s son Abdul-Bahá and even Bahaullah himself said of the Old and New Testament that “they are of God” (Bahaullah 84). This is a demonstration of the difficulties the Baha’is face when trying to blend contradictory statements from all world religions.

In spite of the contradictions of their faith, the Baha’is have retained the prophetic time calculations, not only from the Quran and the Hadiths, but also from the Christian Advent Movement. The calculation of the 2300 days of Daniel 8:14 are done almost exactly like that of Miller, Fry and other Advent preachers. Notice Abdul-Bahá’s reasoning:

“”Two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.” Briefly, the purport of this passage is that he appoints two thousand three hundred years, for in the text of the Bible each day is a year. Then from the date of the issuing of the edict of Artaxerxes to rebuild Jerusalem until the day of the birth of Christ there are 456 years, and from the birth of Christ until the day of the manifestation of the Bab there are 1844 years. When you add 456 years to this number it makes 2300 years. That is to say, the fulfillment of the vision of Daniel took place in the year A.D. 1844, and this is the year of the Bab’s manifestation according to the actual text of the Book of Daniel.” (Abdu’l-Bahá 40-41)

It is unclear when and where the Baha’is came in contact with the prophetic exposition of the Advent Christians; but the reasoning is too similar to overlook. They also count the 1260 days of Revelation 11 and 12 as 1260 years. This they interpret as representing the 1260 years according to the Hegira, that ended in 1844 when the Báb made his declaration (Abdu’l-Bahá 46-47, 71). The connections show that the Baha’i movement is in truth a misguided relic of the Advent Movement in the Islamic world.

The Baha’i movement is not the only remnant of Islamic messianic expectations in the 19th Century. The Sudanese Mahdiyya movement in the late 19th century, saw Muhammad Ahmad as the Mahdi and Messiah. The Islamic Ahmadiyya Movement from Punjab, India, with over 10 million followers today claims that Mizra Ghulam Ahmad is both Mahdi and Jesus that has returned. The existence of such movements strengthens even more the fact that there was a wide expectancy in the whole Muslim world of the advent of Christ in 1844. It also shows that the Advent movement was not limited to the Christian world, but that God was directing the eyes of all humanity towards the Second Coming of Christ around the same time. It is indeed fascinating to learn that such similar Advent movements took place at the same time in both Christianity and Islam. That so many people, for different reasons expected the Second Coming in 1844, suggests that something supernatural was stirring people to come to the same conclusion. The probability of so many different people groups uniting on a religious topic without previous knowledge of each other is negligible. This adds credibility to Seventh-Day Adventists’ claim that God was preparing the whole world for the Second Coming in this year.

The Baha’i connection to the Advent Movement can be used by Adventists to reach Muslims. The understanding that God was preparing Muslims as well as Christians in the 19th Century for the Second Coming, gives validity to the Advent Movement among Muslims. The Muslims believe that Christianity at large has fallen away from the truth, but that there is a small remnant of Christians that are considered righteous (Quran 3:110-115). Some high ranking Muslims today are beginning to conclude that the Seventh-Day Adventist Church is the end time version of this divinely guided movement, and that they ought to cooperate with it and not try to convert them (Johnsson). The common denominators between Islamic and Seventh-Day Adventist lifestyle and eschatology demonstrates to Muslims that Adventists have a message from God for both Christians and Muslims in order to prepare them all to meet Christ.

Works Cited

Abdu’l-Bahá. Some Questions Answered, US Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1990.

Ali, Mrs Meer Hassan. Observations on the Mussulmauns of India, Humphrey Milford, 1832.

Amanat, Abbas. “Resurgence of Apocalypticism in Modern Islam”, The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism, vol. III, Continuum, 2000.

Bahaullah. The Kitáb-i-Iqan: The Book of Certitude, US Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1931.

Buck, Christopher. “Festival of Declaration of the Báb.” Melton, Gordon. Religious Celebrations: An Encyclopedia of Holidays, Festivals, Solemn Observances, and Spiritual Commemorations, ABC-CLIO, 2011.

Dibdin, Colin. “A Bahá’í View of the Bible.” Carr, David Brown et al. 75 Years of the Bahá’í Faith in Australasia, Rosebery: Association for Baha’i Studies Australia, 1996.

Froom, LeRoy. Prophetic Faith of our Fathers, vol 3, Review and Herald, 1946.

Fry, John. Observations on the Unfulfilled Prophecies of Scripture, James Duncan, Pater Noster Row, 1835.

Huraira, Abu. Sahih Bukhari, vol. 3, www.sahih-bukhari.com. 9 March 2017.

Jacobs, Joseph et al. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/14988-wolff-joseph. 1906. 7 March 2017.

Johnsson, William. “Adventists and Muslims: Five Convictions.” Adventist World February 2010. http://archives.adventistworld.org/2010/february/adventists-and-muslims-five-convictions.html.

MacEoin, Denis. Encyclopædia Iranica. Encyclopaedia Iranica Foundation, 1984. An updated version is available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/. 29 March 2017.

—. The Messiah of Shiraz. Brill, 2009.

Quran. The Holy Qur’an, translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali. Wordsworth Editions Limited, 2000.

Rafati, Vahid. The Development of Shaykhi Thought in Shi’i Islam. Diss. University of California, 1979. https://bahai-library.com/rafati_development_shaykhi_thought. 12 March 2017.

Wolff, Joseph. Narrative of a Mission to Bokhara. Harper, 1845.

—. Travels and Adventures. London Saunders, Otley, 1861. https://archive.org/details/travelsofwolff00wolfuoft. 11 April 2017.

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