Overview of the Bábi Faith1

The early nineteenth century was a period of messianic expectation in the Islamic world as well as in the Christian world. In Persia, two influential theologians, Shaykh Ahmad-i-Ahsa'i and his disciple and successor, Siyyid Kazim-i-Rashti, taught a doctrine that departed radically from orthodox Shiah belief. In addition to interpreting the Qur'an in an allegorical rather than a literal manner, the "Shaykhis," as their followers were known, proclaimed that the return of the Imam Mahdi, the appointed deliverer and successor of Muhammad, was imminent.2 Their teachings attracted widespread interest and aroused an air of expectancy reminiscent of contemporary Christian groups like the Millerites in Europe and America, which at the same time were eagerly awaiting the return of Jesus Christ.3

Before Siyyid Kazim died in 1843, he urged his disciples to scatter in search of the Promised One who would shortly be revealed. He pointed out that the year, according to the Islamic calendar, was 1260 A.H., or exactly one thousand lunar years since the disappearance of the Hidden Imam.

For one of the leading Shaykhis, a man called Mulla Husayn, the search ended abruptly in the city of Shiraz on the evening of May 23, 1844, when he encountered a young man named Siyyid (a title referring to the descendants of Muhammad) `Ali-Mu h ammad, who announced that He was the Promised One whom the Shaykhis were seeking. The claim was set forth in a lengthy document entitled Qayyúmu'l-Asma', which the young Siyyid began that same night, and which became the foundation stone of the Bábi Faith. The document identifies its author as a Messenger of God, in the line of Jesus, Muhammad, and those who had preceded them. In subsequent statements, Siyyid `Ali-Mu h ammad also referred to Himself by the traditional Muslim title "Báb" (Gate), although it was apparent from the context that He intended by this term a spiritual claim very different from any which had previously been associated with it.4

The charm and force of the Báb's personality, together with His extraordinary capacity to reveal the meaning of the most abstruse passages in the Qur'an, prompted Mulla H usayn to declare his faith.5 He became the first believer of the Bábi Faith. Within a few weeks, seventeen other seekers accepted the Báb's claim to be the promised Messenger. He appointed these first eighteen believers as the "Letters of the Living," and dispatched them throughout Iran to announce that the Day of God heralded in the Qur'an and all earlier religious scriptures had dawned.

Siyyid `Ali-Mu h ammad, who became known to history as the Báb, was born in Shiraz on October 20, 1819, to a family of merchants.6 Both His father and His mother were descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. The Báb's father died while His son was still a child and the Báb was raised by a maternal uncle, Haji Mirza Siyyid `Ali, who in later years became one of the Báb's most devoted followers and one of the early martyrs of the new faith. All surviving accounts agree that the Báb was an extraordinary child. Although He received only elementary training in reading and writing, as was customary for the minority of Persian children who received any education at all, He exhibited an innate wisdom that astonished both His teacher and other adults with whom He came in contact. To these qualities of mind was added a profoundly spiritual nature. Even as a young boy He spent long periods in meditation and prayer. On one occasion, when His teacher protested that such lengthy devotions were not required of a child, the Báb is reported to have said that He had been in the house of his "Grandfather" whom He was trying to emulate. The reference was to the Prophet Muhammad, who was occasionally spoken of in this fashion by those who could claim direct descent from Him.

The Báb left school some time before His thirteenth birthday, and at fifteen years of age He joined His uncle in the family business in Shiraz. Shortly thereafter He was sent to take over the management of the family trading house in Búshihr. While pursuing a business career that won Him a reputation for integrity and ability, He continued His meditations, some of which He wrote down. In the spring of 1841, He left Búshihr to undertake a series of extended visits to various Muslim holy cities associated with the shrines of the martyred Imams. During His visit to Karbila, the Báb met Siyyid Ka z im who greeted Him with a reverence and enthusiasm which the Siyyid did not choose to explain to others, and which greatly surprised his students. The Báb stayed briefly with the group around Siyyid Ka z im and then returned to Iran where He married Khadijih, the daughter of another merchant family, to whom he was distantly related. Less than two years later, His declaration to Mulla H usayn in Shiraz took place.

The next step was publicly to proclaim the new faith. This began with a visit by the Báb to the center of pilgrimage for the Muslim world, the twin cities of Mecca and Medina in Arabia. On Friday, December 20, 1844, standing with His hand on the door-ring of the Kaaba, the holiest shrine in all the Islamic world, the Báb publicly declared: "I am that Qa'im Whose advent you have been waiting." He also addressed a special "tablet," or letter, to the Sharif of Mecca, guardian of the shrines, in which He made the same claim. On neither occasion, although He was treated with great respect, was any serious attention given to His claims by the authorities of Sunni Islam. Undeterred, the Báb set sail for Persia, where the teaching activities of the Letters of the Living were beginning to raise a storm of excitement among both the clergy and the general public.

To the Shiah Muslim clergy, the claims made by the Báb were not merely heretical, but a threat to the foundations of Islam. Orthodox Islam holds that Muhammad was the "Seal of the Prophets" and thus the bearer of God's final revelation to humankind until the "Day of Judgment." Only Islam has remained pure and undiminished because its repository, the Qur'an, represents the authentic words uttered by the Prophet himself. From this baseline, Muslim theology had gone on to assert that Islam contains all that humanity will ever need until the Day of Judgement and that no further revelation of the divine purpose could or would occur.

The Báb's declaration of His mission was, therefore, a challenge to the central pillar of this theological system. For the Shiah, the dominant branch of Islam in Persia, the challenge was especially acute. Over the centuries, Shiah dogma had accorded unlimited authority over all human affairs to the person of the "Hidden Imam," whose advent was to signal the Judgment Day. Indeed, it had been argued that the shahs themselves reigned merely as the Imam's trustees. Accordingly, throughout Persia, mullas arose in violent opposition to the Báb almost as soon as they heard His claim. This opposition was greatly intensified by the Báb's denunciation of the prevailing ignorance and degeneracy of the clergy, which He saw as the principal obstacle to the progress of the Persian people.

The mullas' opposition went far beyond denunciations from the pulpit. In nineteenth-century Persia the Shiah clergy represented a system of power and authority parallel to that of the shah. Much of daily life was regulated by Islamic religious law under the jurisdiction of mujtahids or doctors of theology. In theory, the judgments of these ecclesiastical courts depended on the support of the secular government for their enforcement. In practice, the Shiah clergy had resources of their own by which they could compel submission to their decrees. A leading modern authority on the subject describes the conditions prevailing in Persia at the time the Báb announced His mission:

Throughout most of the Qajar period, we encounter cases of mujtahids, particularly in Isfahan and Tabriz, surrounded by what can only be called private armies. Initially they consisted more of straightforward brigands (lú t is) than of mullas. The lú t is, who originally formed chivalrous brotherhoods similar to those of their counterparts, the fati's in Anatolia and the Arab lands, acted to support clerical power by defying the state and by enforcing fatvas. In return they were permitted to engage in plunder and robbery, taking sanctuary, when threatened with pursuit, in the refuge known as bast which mosques and residences of the `ulama provided.7

These private armies served as the spearhead of an even more powerful resource available to the mullas. By declaring an enemy to be an infidel, the clergy could arouse mobs of the fanatical and largely ignorant population of towns and villages to stream into the streets in defense of what was regarded as the one true faith. Not only heterodox groups, but even the state itself had frequently felt the power of this clerical weapon.

Despite the growing threat from this source, the period from 1845 to 1847 witnessed a great expansion in the number of people who declared themselves to be "Bábis," or followers of the Báb. Indeed, this number included many people drawn from the clergy. One of the new believers was a brilliant and extremely influential theologian named Siyyid Ya h yay-i-Darabi, later given the name "Va h id" (Unique). The Báb had been placed under house arrest by the governor of Shiraz, at the instigation of Muslim clergy in the area. Va h id had been sent to interrogate Him on behalf of Muhammad Shah, the ruler of Persia, who had heard rumors of the new movement and wished to secure reliable firsthand information. Not surprisingly, upon learning of Va h id's conversion, the Shah sent orders that the Báb be brought immediately to the capital--Tehran --under escort, but treated as an honored guest. The Báb had earlier indicated His own desire to meet the ruler and fully explain His mission.

Unfortunately, the plan miscarried. Muhammad Shah was a weak and vacillating man, already experiencing the later stages of an illness that would kill him within the year. Moreover, he was completely dominated by his prime minister, H aji Mirza qasi, one of the most bizarre figures in Iranian history.8 The prime minister had been the Shah's childhood tutor and was implicitly trusted by him. Fearing that his own influence might be fatally undermined should the Shah meet the Báb, the prime minister ordered that the Báb be taken in great secrecy to the fortress of Mah-Kú, in the northern province of Azerbaijan on the Russian frontier. The excuse given to the Shah was that the Báb's arrival in the capital might produce a confrontation between His followers and those of the orthodox clergy, and could possibly lead to public disorder of the kind which was common to this period.9

However, the prime minister, who came from Azerbaijan, almost certainly chose that area because he hoped that its wild Kurdish mountain people would be totally unsympathetic to the Báb and His message. To his chagrin, the contrary proved true. The new faith spread even to Azerbaijan, and the governor and other officials of the fortress of Mah-Kú were disarmed by the captivating sincerity of their prisoner. In a final effort to contain what he saw to be a mounting threat, H aji Mirza qasi had the Báb transferred from Mah-Kú to the equally remote castle of Chihriq. The same process was repeated and the Kurdish chieftain in charge of the fortress, Ya h ya Khan, became another of the Báb's devoted admirers.

Realizing that the Shah was about to die and fearing the antagonism which his own misrule had aroused among influential groups in Persia, H aji Mirza qasi attempted to ingratiate himself with the powerful Muslim clergy who were bitterly opposed to the Báb and who had urged a formal condemnation of the new movement. At their urging, the prime minister ordered that the Báb be taken to the city of Tabriz and tried before a panel of leading ecclesiastics.

The trial took place in the summer of 1848 and by all accounts proved a farcical event. Its only purpose, it was clear, was to humiliate the prisoner.10 The meeting ended with a decision to inflict corporal punishment on the Báb, and He was subsequently subjected to the bastinado.11 The resulting injuries had an unexpected result: they put the Báb in contact with the only Westerner who has left an account of meeting Him. During the course of the infliction of the bastinado, one of the mullas struck the Báb across the face and an English physician, Dr. William Cormick, was asked to provide treatment. The following is his account:

[The Báb] was a very mild and delicate-looking man, rather small in stature and very fair for a Persian, with a melodious soft voice, which struck me much.... In fact his whole look and deportment went far to dispose one in his favor. Of his doctrine I heard nothing from his own lips, although the idea was that there existed in his religion a certain approach to Christianity.... Most assuredly the Musselman [sic] fanaticism does not exist in His religion, as applied to Christians, nor is there that restraint of females that now exists [in Islam].12

While the Báb was being held in prison His followers were experiencing growing attacks from mobs instigated by the Shiah mullas. This raised for them the question of self-defense. Islam, unlike Christianity, contains a much-misunderstood doctrine of jihad (holy war), which permits the conversion of pagan populations by force of arms. It also allows Muslims to defend themselves when attacked, but forbids any form of aggressive warfare and the forced conversion of other "Peoples of the Book" (i.e., followers of another revealed religion, generally interpreted as Jews and Christians).13 Raised in this Muslim value system, the Bábis felt fully justified in defending themselves and their families against the attacks of the mullas. Some may even have expected that the Báb would reveal his own doctrine of jihad.

If so, they were disappointed. In the Qayyúmu'l-Asma' the Báb reviewed in detail the basic principles of the Quranic concept of jihad and called on His followers to observe this governing order of the society in which they lived. Attacks on Muslims, as one of the peoples of the book, were therefore prohibited to them. The Báb made any form of aggressive jihad contingent upon His own approval, an approval which was not given despite the increasingly violent character of the conflict with the Shiah clergy.

These restrictions proved to be the first step in the gradual dismantling of a concept which had been one of the fundamental doctrines of the Islamic religion. When the Bayan (the Exposition), the book containing the laws of the Báb's faith, was subsequently revealed, no jihad doctrine was included. The Bábis were thus left free to defend themselves if attacked, but were precluded from proclaiming the Bábi dispensation through the use of the sword, as the prophet Muhammad had permitted his followers to do under the barbaric conditions prevailing in pre-Islamic Arabia. The protection and ultimate triumph of His faith, the Báb said, were in the hand of God.

While the Báb was undergoing imprisonment and trial in northern Iran, His following continued to grow in other parts of the country. At about the time of His public declaration at Tabriz, a large group of leading Bábis met in the village of Badasht. This conference proved of great significance to the development of the Bábi Faith. One of the most prominent Bábis present was an extraordinary woman named Qurratu'l-`Ayn, known to Bahá'í history as T ahirih (the Pure One).

Born into a family of scholars and theologians, T ahirih had become recognized as one of the most gifted poets of Persia. To appreciate the magnitude of this achievement, it is necessary to consider how secluded and restricted Muslim women of this period were. Through the influence of an uncle and a cousin who had become disciples of Shaykh A h mad, T ahirih came in contact with some of the early Bábis. Although she never met the Báb, she corresponded with Him, declared her faith, and was named by Him one of the original Letters of the Living.

One of the primary reasons for holding the Badasht conference was to decide on what steps might be taken to free the Báb from the castle of Chihriq. However, the gathering was unexpectedly electrified by a daring exposition by T ahirih of some of the implications of the Báb's message. Some of the Bábis may have regarded the founder of their faith as a religious reformer; others may have been confused by traditional connotations of the term Báb. T ahirih explicitly clarified the implications of the Báb's own statements about His mission, uttered first on the night He had declared Himself to Mulla H usayn: He was the long-awaited Imam Mahdi, He who was to arise from the house of Muhammad. Thus He was a Messenger of God, the founder of a new and independent religious dispensation.

Just as early Christians had to free themselves from the laws and ordinances of the Torah, so were the Bábis called upon to free themselves from the requirements of the Islamic Shari'ah (canon law). New social teachings had been revealed by the Báb and it was these to which Bábis should look for guidance.

To dramatize this exposition, T ahirih appeared at one of the sessions of the conference without the veil required by Muslim tradition. Her action, and others like it, proved a severe test of faith for many of the more conservative Bábis and further aroused the antagonism of orthodox Muslims. Wild stories that the Bábis were atheists who believed in sexual promiscuity and community of property were eagerly spread by mullas determined to portray the movement as the enemy of both decency and public order.14

The situation was made even more unstable in September 1848, when Muhammad Shah finally succumbed to his many illnesses. His death precipitated the usual period of political upheaval while the question of the succession was being settled. H aji Mirza qasi was overthrown by his political enemies and the mullas took advantage of the ensuing disorder to intensify their campaign for eradication of the Bábi heresy.

In the province of Mazindaran, a group of some 300 Bábis, under the leadership of Mulla H usayn and the Báb's leading disciple, a young man named Quddús (who had accompanied the Báb on his pilgrimage to Mecca), found themselves besieged in a small fortress which they had hastily erected at the isolated shrine dedicated to a Muslim saint, Shaykh T abarsi. They had enthusiastically swept through the province proclaiming that the promised Qa'im had appeared, and called on all who heard them to arise and follow. The local Shiah clergy had denounced them as heretics and aroused the population of several villages to attack them. No sooner were the Bábis penned up behind the palisade they had put together at Shaykh T abarsi than the mullas accused them of responsibility for the civil disorder which the clergy's own fulminations against heresy and apostasy had aroused. In the highly charged atmosphere surrounding the struggle for power among Muhammad Shah's heirs, this reckless new accusation served as a spark to gunpowder. Mirza Taqi Khan, a man of great ability, but ruthless and intensely suspicious, had replaced H aji Mirza qasi as grand vizier. Deciding that the Bábi movement must be crushed, the new vizier dispatched an armed force to support the efforts of the mullas and their partisans.

The siege at Shaykh T abarsi turned, however, into an occasion of humiliation for the opponents of the Bábis. Over the following year, one army after another, numbering finally thousands of men, was sent to overcome the few hundred defenders of the fort, and all in turn suffered decisive defeat. Eventually, the small garrison, which had already lost a large percentage of its members--including Mulla H usayn--was enticed to surrender under a solemn promise, witnessed on a copy of the Qur'an, that they would be freed. However, no sooner did they leave the protection of the fortress than they were set upon by the besiegers. Many were killed outright, others were tortured to death, and the remainder were stripped of their possessions and sold into slavery. Quddús was given over into the hands of a leading ecclesiastic of the area who had him dragged through the streets, mutilated, and finally killed.

Similar events took place in two other major centers, Nayriz and Zanjan. In both places, armed forces of the Qajar princes came to the support of mobs that had been stirred into a state of fanatic frenzy by the Shiah clergy, who were determined to exterminate all the followers of the new religion. In Nayriz, not even the fact that the Bábis were led by so preeminent a figure as Va h id succeeded in calming the rage of local authorities and the aroused and angry mob. Va h id perished in the massacre that followed the capture of the small fort in which the beleaguered Bábis had taken refuge. At Zanjan, as at Fort Shaykh T abarsi, the surrender of the Bábi defenders was secured by false pledges of peace and friendship signed and sealed on a copy of the Qur'an, following which the prisoners were similarly massacred.

Scenes of violence occurred throughout the country. Advised by the mullas that the property of the "apostates" was forfeit, many local authorities joined in hunting down Bábis. Social position offered no protection. In the capital of Tehran, at about the time of the massacre of Zanjan, seven prominent and highly respected leaders of the merchant and academic communities were publicly put to death with great cruelty when they refused to recant their newly proclaimed faith. It is indicative of the public fury which had been aroused that one of these murdered men, Mirza Qurban `Ali, regarded as a person of unusual saintliness, had served as spiritual mentor to the royal family as well as to several members of the government.15

Responsibility for the majority of these atrocities and those that were to follow must be attributed not only to the Shiah clergy, but also to the new prime minister, Mirza Taqi Khan. The new ruler, Na s iri'd-Din Shah, was still a boy of sixteen; thus, once again, the monarch's authority fell into the hands of a chief minister. Mirza Taqi Khan had been head of the faction that had installed the new ruler after overcoming the partisans of two other heirs to the throne. Concluding that his own power as well as the general stability of the regime could be best assured by suppressing the Bábi movement, he had collaborated in the horrors of Fort Shaykh T abarsi, Nayriz and Zanjan, and also in the deaths of the "Seven Martyrs of Tehran," as they became known. Now he determined to strike the movement at its heart.

While the siege of Zanjan was still in progress, Mira Taqi Khan ordered the governor of dhirbayjan to take the Báb to Tabriz and there conduct a public execution.16 Mirza Taqi Khan had no personal authority to issue such an order, nor did he consult the other members of the government. Because of this, the governor of Azerbaijan, who had come to respect His captive, refused Mirza Taqi Khan's order. The latter was therefore finally compelled to send his own brother, Mirza H asan Khan, to execute the task. The Báb was hastily taken to Tabriz where the leading mujtahids were asked to decide the case as a matter of religious rather than civil law. As Mirza Taqi Khan had anticipated, the clergy readily cooperated in signing a formal death warrant on a charge of heresy. On July 9, 1850, in the presence of a crowd of thousands who thronged rooftops and windows of a public square, arrangements were made to carry out the sentence. What followed was a most extraordinary event.

The Báb and one of His disciples were suspended by ropes against the wall of a military barracks and a regiment of 750 Armenian Christian troops were drawn up to form a firing squad. The colonel of the regiment, a certain Sam Khan was reluctant to carry out the order of execution, which he feared would bring down the wrath of God on his head. The Báb is reported to have given him the following assurance: "Follow your instructions, and if your intention be sincere, the Almighty is surely able to relieve you of your perplexity."17

Many eye-witnesses testified to what followed.18 The regiment was drawn up and 750 rifles were discharged. The smoke from these muzzle-loading rifles shrouded the square in darkness. When the smoke cleared, incredulous onlookers saw the Báb's companion standing unscathed beside the wall; the Báb had vanished from sight! The ropes by which the pair had hung had been severed by the bullets. A frenzied search ensued, and the Báb was found unhurt in the room He had occupied the night before. He was calmly engaged in completing His final instructions to His secretary.

The crowd was in a state of near pandemonium and the Armenian regiment refused to take any further part in the proceedings. Mirza H asan Khan was faced with the real possibility that the fickle mob, which had first hailed the Báb and then denounced Him, might view His deliverance as a sign from God and rise up in His support. A Muslim regiment was thus hastily assembled, the Báb and His companion were once again suspended from the wall, and a second volley was discharged. This time the bodies of the two prisoners were riddled with bullets. The last words of the Báb to the crowd were:

O wayward generation! Had you believed in Me every one of you would have followed the example of this youth, who stood in rank above most of you, and would have willingly sacrificed himself in My path. The day will come when you will have recognized Me; that day I shall have ceased to be with you.19

The extraordinary circumstances of the Báb's death provided a focal point for a new wave of interest in His message. The story spread like wildfire, not only among the Persians, but also among the diplomats, merchants, military advisers, and journalists who made up the substantial European community in Persia at the time. The words of a French consular official, A. L. M. Nicolas, suggest the impact the drama in Persia made on educated Westerners:

This is one of the most magnificent examples of courage which mankind has ever been able to witness, and it is also an admirable proof of the love which our hero had for his fellow countrymen. He sacrificed himself for mankind; he gave for it his body and his soul, he suffered for it hardships, insults, indignities, torture and martyrdom. He sealed with his blood the pact of universal brotherhood, and like Jesus he gave his life in order to herald the reign of concord, justice and love for one's fellow men.20

For the Bábi community, however, the effect of the Báb's death, occurring so soon after the extermination of most of the faith's leaders, including the majority of the Letters of the Living, was a devastating blow. It deprived the community of the leadership it needed, not only to endure the intensifying persecutions it was experiencing, but also to maintain the integrity of the standards of behavior taught by the Báb.

The Bábis had continuously emphasized that their sole concern was to proclaim the new spiritual and social teachings revealed by the Báb. At the same time, because their basic religious attitudes and ideas were built upon the foundations of their Islamic background, they believed they had every right to defend themselves and their families, provided they did not engage in aggression to secure their religious ends. Once the guiding hands of those who understood the Báb's message were withdrawn by the brutal repression exercized by Mirza Taqi Khan, it was predictable that volatile elements among the Bábis might prove unable to maintain the original discipline.

This proved to be the case when on August 15, 1852, two Bábi youths, obsessed by the sufferings they had witnessed and driven to despair by the attitude of the authorities, fired a pistol at the Shah. The king escaped serious injury because the pistol was loaded only with birdshot; but the attempt on the monarch's life triggered a new wave of persecutions on a scale far surpassing anything the country had yet witnessed. A reign of terror ensued.

One account has been left by Captain Alfred von Goumoens, an Austrian military attaché in the Shah's employ. Horrified by the cruelties he was compelled to witness, he tendered his resignation and subsequently wrote in a letter published in a Viennese newspaper, the following:

Follow me, my friend, you who lay claim to a heart and European ethics, follow me to the unhappy ones who, with gouged-out eyes, must eat, on the scene of the deed, without any sauce, their own amputated ears; or whose teeth are torn out with inhuman violence by the hand of the executioner; or whose bare skulls are simply crushed by blows from a hammer; or where the bazaar is illuminated with unhappy victims, because on right and left the people dig deep holes in their breasts and shoulders, and insert burning wicks in the wounds. I saw some dragged in chains through the bazaar, preceded by a military band, in whom these wicks had burned so deep that now the fat flickered convulsively in the wound like a newly extinguished lamp. Not seldom it happens that the unwearying ingenuity of the Oriental leads to fresh tortures. They will skin the soles of the Bábi's feet, soak the wounds in boiling oil, shoe the foot like the hoof of a horse, and compel the victim to run. No cry escaped from the victim's breast; the torment is endured in dark silence by the numbed sensation of the fanatic; now he must run; the body cannot endure what the soul has endured; he falls. Give him the coup de grâce! Put him out of his pain! No! The executioner swings the whip, and--I myself have had to witness it--the unhappy victim of hundredfold tortures runs! This is the beginning of the end. As for the end itself, they hang the scorched and perforated bodies by their hands and feet to a tree head downwards, and now every Persian may try his marksmanship to his heart's content from a fixed but not too proximate distance on the noble quarry placed at his disposal. I saw corpses torn by nearly one hundred and fifty bullets.21

The most prominent victim of the new persecutions was the poetess, T ahirih, who for some time had been kept under house arrest. One of the features of the new age, which she proclaimed the revelation of the Báb would bring about, was the removal of the restrictions that kept women in a position of inferiority. Advised that she had been condemned to death, T ahirih said to her jailer: "You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women."22

Thus ended what Bahá'ís call "the Dispensation of the Báb," the first phase of Bahá'í history. For a brief period, the whole of Persia had hovered on the brink of sweeping social change. Had the Báb entertained designs to seize political power, as His enemies imputed, few doubted that He could have established Himself as master of the country. The extraordinary ability of His leading followers, the demonstrated susceptibility of the public to a new religious message, the demoralization and factionalism rife amongst both civil and ecclesiastical leadership, and the temporary period of civil disorder which accompanied the final illness and death of Muhammad Shah, combined to create a situation in which the Báb would have merely had to take advantage of the offers of help so urgently pressed upon Him.

Late in 1846, the governor-general of Isfahan, Manúchihr Khan, one of the most powerful men in the kingdom, had offered the Báb the full resources of his army and vast wealth, urging a march on Tehran and confrontation with both the clergy and the Shah. Such an action would have been entirely justified under Shiah belief. The fundamental principle underlying the Persian monarchy was that the Shah served merely as a vice-regent who held the kingdom in trust for the Imam Mahdi. Since the central claim of the Báb was that He was this long-awaited spiritual authority, and since some of the finest minds and spirits of the kingdom accepted Him as such, fidelity to Shiah teaching would have required that Muhammad Shah and Na s iri'd-Din Shah examine His claims with utmost respect and care. That they did not do so was the result only of the intervention of religious and political leaders, who feared that the Báb would threaten the authority which their positions conferred upon them.

By refusing to force the issue, even at the cost of His own life, the Báb gave conclusive evidence of the peaceable character of His mission and His complete reliance on the spiritual forces which He had said from the beginning were His sole support.

What were the teachings which provoked so violent a reaction and for which the Báb and so many thousands of others willingly gave their lives? The answer is far from simple. Because the Báb's message related so specifically to the theological concerns of Shiah Islam, it is very difficult for Western minds to grasp many of the issues with which His writings deal. Indeed, an important reason for the success which the Báb experienced in converting distinguished theologians and a host of young seminarians was His apparently effortless mastery of the most abstruse and controversial questions of Islamic jurisprudence, prophecy, and belief.

It seemed to His hearers extraordinary that a young man, little versed in fields of learning which were the primary preoccupation of the Persian intellectual class, should so easily be able to confound venerable theologians who spent their lives at this study and established their public careers on it. Early historical accounts by Bábis draw extensively on the details of these elucidations and the effects which they produced on listeners. For the European or North American reader, these subjects often appear quite obscure.23

Despite this mastery, the Báb did not encourage the pursuit of such learning by the scholars, clergy, and seminarians who joined His cause. His reasons can perhaps best be appreciated by noting the assessment of Shiah theological studies expressed by the British orientalist Edward Granville Browne. Browne has described the treatises, commentaries, super-commentaries, and notes that passed for intellectual activity in nineteenth-century Persia as unreadable "rubbish," whose very existence serious scholars "must deplore," adding that his opinion was shared by leading thinkers in Islam:

Shaykh Mu h ammad `Abduh late Grand Mufti of Egypt and Chancellor of the University of al-Azhar, than whom perhaps no more enlightened thinker and no more enthusiastic lover of the Arabic language and literature has been produced by Islam in modern times, used to say that all this stuff should be burned, since it merely cumbered book shelves, bred maggots and obscured sound knowledge. This was the view of a great and learned Muhammadan theologian, so we need not scruple to adopt it....24

These views had already been strongly expressed by the Báb. His principal book, the Bayan, envisioned a time when Persia's accumulated legacy of misspent energy would be entirely destroyed and the intellectual capacities of its people liberated from superstition. He spoke of a coming age in which entirely new fields of scholarship and science would emerge and in which the knowledge of even young children would far surpass the learning current in His own time.25

Far more interesting than His extensive theological commentaries, therefore, was the Báb's social message. Among the important differences between Islam and Christianity is the emphasis the former places on revelation as the guide to the detailed organization of society. The Qur'an envisioned the establishment of a fully Muslim society. Muhammad took the first step in this direction when He established the first Muslim state in the city of Medina. It is no doubt significant that, whereas the Christian calendar begins with the supposed date of the birth of Jesus, the Islamic calendar dates from the Hijrah and the establishment of the Muslim state in Medina. Far from rendering unto Caesar "the things that are Caesar's," Islamic teaching contains a wide range of moral instruction relating to the state's administration of human affairs. Shiah Muslims fully expected that, when the Imam Mahdi appeared, he would not only open the way to salvation for the individual soul, but would reaffirm the concept of a "nation summoning mankind unto righteousness."26

It is against this background that the Báb's message must be understood. The minds and hearts of His hearers were locked in a mental world that had changed little from medieval times, except to become more obscurantist, isolated, and fatalistic.27 The Báb's way of overcoming this problem was to create the concept of an entirely new society, one that retained a large measure of cultural and religious elements familiar to His hearers, but which, as events were to show, could arouse powerful new motivation. He called upon the Shah and the people of Persia to follow Him in the establishment of this society. During the brief period still left Him, He elaborated a system of laws for the conduct of public affairs; for the maintenance of peace and public order; for the direction of economic activity; for such social institutions as marriage, divorce, and inheritance; and for the relationship between the Bábi state and other nations. Prayers, meditations, moral precepts, and prophetic guidance were revealed for the individual believer. These teachings have been described by a Bahá'í historian as intentionally "rigid, complex and severe." Their aim was to effect a break with the believers' Muslim frame of reference and to mobilize them for a unique role in human history.28

This role was the theme that runs through every chapter of the Bayan and for which the spiritual and social transformation of Persia was intended to serve as a prelude. The Báb proclaimed that the central purpose of His mission was to prepare for the coming of the universal Manifestation of God. The Báb referred to this promised deliverer as "He Whom God Will Make Manifest." The Báb Himself, although an independent Messenger of God in the line of Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, was the Herald of the One whom all the religions of the world were awaiting. The term Báb had far greater implications in the new revelation than any it held in Islam; the Báb was the "gateway" to the Manifestation of God whose message would be carried throughout the world.

Passages of the Bayan and other writings of the Báb deal at length with this central subject. They make it clear that the Báb saw His religious dispensation as a purely transitional one. When the Promised One appeared, He would reveal the teachings for the coming age and would decide what, if any, part of the Bábi system was to be retained:

A thousand perusals of Bayan cannot equal the perusal of a single verse to be revealed by "Him Whom God Shall Make Manifest." . . . Today, the Bayan is in the stage of seed; at the beginning of the manifestation of "Him Whom God shall make manifest," its ultimate perfection will become apparent.... The Bayan deriveth all its glory from "Him Whom God shall make manifest."29

The Báb refused to state precisely when the Promised One would appear, but indicated that it would be very soon. Several of His followers were informed that they would see with their own eyes Him whom God shall make manifest and have the privilege of serving Him. The Bayan and other writings contain cryptic references to "the year nine" and "the year nineteen." Moreover, the Báb categorically stated that no one could falsely claim to be He whom God shall make manifest, and succeed in such a pretension. The Bábis were warned not to oppose anyone who advanced such a claim, but rather to hold their peace so that God might accomplish His own will in the matter. To the faithful and distinguished Va h id, for example, the Báb wrote:

By the righteousness of Him Whose power causeth the seed to germinate and Who breatheth the spirit of Life into all things, were I to be assured that in the day of His manifestation thou wilt deny Him, I would unhesitatingly disown thee and repudiate thy faith.... If, on the other hand, I be told that a Christian, who beareth no allegiance to My Faith, will believe in Him, the same will I regard as the apple of Mine Eye.30

The Bábi state, therefore, had it come into existence, was to have served chiefly as a receptive agent for the message of the Promised One to come, and for its rapid diffusion throughout the world. The martyrdoms of the Báb and the majority of His closest disciples, together with the massacre of several thousands of His followers, aborted this vision before it could be realized. Indeed, by 1852, the Báb's mission appeared to have ended in failure and His faith hovered on the verge of extinction.

  1. Excerpted and Adapted from William S. Hatcher and J. Douglas Martin, The Bahá'í Faith: The Emerging Global Religion (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985), pp. 6-27.
  2. For recent scholarship on this doctrine, see Va h id Rafati, The Development of Shaykhi Thought in Shi'i Islam (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979) and Henri Corbin, En Islam iranien; aspects spirituels et philosphiques, Vol. 4 (Paris: Gallimard, 1972).
  3. See, for example, Ira V. Brown, "Watchers for the Second Coming, the Millenial Tradition in America" in Mississipi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 39, No. 3, 1952, pp. 441-458.
  4. It has been argued, usually by opponents of the Bahá'í Faith, that the Báb's conception of His mission only gradually "evolved" in His mind, presumably as consequence of a series of successes. This clearly is not correct. The statements made by the Báb in first disclosing His claim to Mulla H usayn describes Himself not only as the Messenger of God, but specifically as the "Remembrance of God" and the "Proof of God," titles which unequivocally referred to the long-expected advent of the Hidden Imam. That His audacious claim was understood by both His followers and the Muslim clergy was at once made clear. One of the first of those to accept the Báb, Mulla `Aliy-i-Bastami, left Persia almost immediately upon accepting the Báb in 1844, taking with him a copy of the Qayyúmu'l-Asma, and was arrested on a charge of heresy shortly after his arrival in neighboring Baghdad. In January 1845, he was formally condemned on this charge by an edict (fatva) of the assembled Shiah and Sunni clergy. The condemnations was based on his belief in one who claimed to be the source of a revelation like that of the Qur'an, and the Báb as author was also condemned. For a full discussion of the subject, see Mu h ammad Afnan and William S. Hatcher, "Western Islamic Scholarship and Bahá'í Origins," Religion, Vol. 15, No. 1 (1985), pp. 29-51.
  5. Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, Selected Letters, 2d rev. ed. (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1974), pp. 123-128.
  6. The four principal sources used for the history of the Bábi religion are Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, 3d ed. (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1974); Hasan Balyuzi, The Báb, The Herald of the Day of Days (Oxford: George Ronald, 1973); Nabil-i-A' z am (Mu h ammad-i-Zarandi), The Dawn-Breakers, Nabil's Narrative of the Early Days of the Bahá'í Revelation (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1932); Joseph Arthur, Comte de Gobineau, Les Religions et les Philosophies dans l'Asie Centrale, 3d ed. (Paris: Ernest le Roux, 1990).
  7. Hamid Algar, Religion and State in Iran, 1784-1906 (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980), p. 19.
  8. Gobineau said of Muhammad Shah and his chief minister: "Muhammad Shah, of whom I have already spoken, was a prince with quite a special disposition--one which is quite common in Asia but which Europeans have hardly seen, let alone understood.... His health had always been deplorable; gouty to the last degree he suffered continual pain and had very little relief from it. His character which was naturally weak, had become melancholy and, as he was in great need of affection but seldom experienced feelings of this kind within his family among his wives and children, he concentrated all his affection on the old mulla, his tutor. He made him his only friend, his confidant, then his all-powerful prime minister and finally, with no exaggeration, his god.... The Haji, for his part, was a god of a very special kind. It is not absolutely certain that he did not himself believe what Muhammad Shah was convinced of. In all situations, he professed the same general principles as the king, and had in good faith instilled them into him. Les Religions et les Philosophies, pp. 160-162.
  9. Nicolas writes: "An anecdote shows which sentiments the prime minister obeyed when he determined the will of the Shah. Prince Farhad Mirza, still a young man, was the pupil of H aji Mirza qasi. He further related: 'One day as I was strolling ... with him in the garden and he seemed in a good mood, I went so far as to ask him, " H aji, why did you send the Báb to Mah-Kú?" He replied, 'You are still young and there are certain things you cannot understand, but you should know that if he had come to Tehran, you and I would not be walking about at this moment free from all care in these shady surroundings.'" Siyyid `Ali-Mu h ammad, Dit le Báb, cited in Nabil-i-A'zam, The Dawn-Breakers, pp. 231-232.
  10. Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p. 21. Balyuzi provides a detailed description the trial in The Báb, pp. 139-145. See also E. G. Browne, A Traveller's Narrative, Written to Illustrate the Episode of the Báb (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1891), pp. 277-290.
  11. Caning on the soles of the feet as punishment or torture.
  12. Cited in Balyuzi, The Báb, pp. 146-147.
  13. For a full discussion of this subject see Mu h ammad Afnan and William S. Hatcher, "Western Islamic Scholarship and Bahá'í Origins."
  14. Fragmentary early accounts by Western commentators in Persia repeat many of these stories gleaned, it must be assumed, from the Muslim contacts on whom these observers were almost entirely dependent for their understanding of the Persian language and their interpretation of religious issues in the country. Moojan Momen has brought together in The Bábi and Bahá'í Religions (Oxford: George Ronald, 1981), pp. 3-17, a number of these reports, which include references to rebellion, nihilism, atheism, and community of wives and property. It was only after scholarly study by Gobineau, Browne, Nicolas, and others who could communicate directly with followers of the new faith, that these impressions were corrected.
  15. Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p. 47.
  16. Several Western diplomatic representatives sought, unsuccess fully, to dissuade the prime minister from his course, arguing that persecution could only further spread the teachings he feared. (Momen, The Báb and Bahá'í Religions, pp. 71-72, 103).
  17. Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p. 52.
  18. Momen, Báb and Bahá'í Religions, (pp. 77-82) has brought together a number of eye witness accounts of the event, transmitted by Western commentators.
  19. Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p. 53.
  20. A. L. M. Nicolas, Siyyid `Al-Mu h ammad, Dit le Báb, cited in Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p. 55.
  21. Cited in Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p. 65. The Russian ambassador, Prince Dolgoroukov, who likewise witnessed these cruelties, denounced them in a personal interview with the Shah as "barbarous practices" which "did not even exist among the most savage nations." The British charge d'affaires likewise protested to the Persian authorities against practices which "Her Majesty's Government had imagined to be confined to the barbarous tribes of ... Africa." (Momen, Báb and Bahá'í Religions, pp. 100-101).
  22. Cited in Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p. 65.
  23. A French translation of the Bayán, Le Beyn Persan, the major doctrinal work and principal repository of the Báb's laws, was made by A. L. M. Nicolas, consular representative of the government of France, who spent considerable time in Persia.
  24. E. G. Browne, A Literary History of Persia, Vol. IV, 1500-1924 (Cambridge, 1924), pp. 415-416.
  25. Cited in Nabl, The Dawn-Breakers, pp. 92-94. This is the source of the story circulated by Muslim opponents of the new faith, that a Báb state would destroy all books. Once the separation from Shiah Islam had been accomplished, Bahá'u'lláh rescinded bans of this type.
  26. Qur'n, III, 104. See also II, 143.
  27. The extent of this regression can be seen in the regime established in Iran by the Islamic Republic after 1979, in which full effect was given to the Shiah mullla's conceptions of human nature and human society.
  28. Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, Foreword, xvii. See also pp. 24-25.
  29. Shoghi Effendi, The Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 8 in The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh. For more complete texts of statements the Báb made on this subject, see Selections from the Writings of the Báb (Haifa: Bahá'íi World Centre, 1982), pp. 3-8 and pp. 153-168.
  30. Cited in Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 101.

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