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The Bábís (in Persian بابی ها Bâbihâ) are members of a religious movement that flourished in Persia from 1844. Its founder was 'Ali Muhammad of Shiraz (1817-1850), who took the title Báb – meaning "Gate" – from a well-known Shi'i theological term. The implication was that 'Ali Muhammad was an avenue through which continuing divine revelation could flow — a controversial and in fact dangerous position, as his execution shows.
Within Shiite Islam exists a large group known as Twelver Islam who regard the twelfth Imam as the last of the Imáms. They contend that the twelfth Imám is in "occultation" and that he will eventually begin again communicating with his loyal followers, as he did during the period of his "minor occultation" (Ghaybat al-Sughra, AD 874- 940). It was in this sense, and not, as has been often asserted, in the sense of "Gate of God" or "Gate of Religion," that the title Báb was understood. However, though his claim was at first understood by some of the public at the time to be merely a reference to the Gate of the Hidden Imám of Muhammad, which he publicly disclaimed. He later proclaimed himself, in the presence of the Heir to the Throne of Persia and other notables, to be the Promised One or Qá'im to Shí'ih Muslims.
In the 1830's in Persia, Siyyid Kázim of Rasht was the leader of the Shaykhis , a sect of Shiite Islam. The Shayhkis were a group expecting the eminent appearance of the Qá'im of the House of Muhammad, also called the Mahdi or (Messiah). At Siyyid Kázim's death in 1843, he had councelled his followers to leave their homes to seek the Lord of the Age whose advent would soon break on the world.
On May 23 1844 Mullá Husayn of Bushruyih in Khorasan, a prominent disciple of Siyyid Kázim entered Shiraz on the search for the Qaim that Siyyid Kázim had set him on. He encountered Mirza Ali Muhammad, who invited him to his home, and showed him hospitality. Mullá Husayn had been given a test to apply to any claiming the station of Báb, that the one he found would reveal, without prompting, a commentary on the Surah of Joseph from the Qur'an. That night Mirza Ali Muhammad fulfilled the prophecy to Mullá Husayn, and ordered him to wait until 17 others had independently recognized the station of the Báb before they could begin teaching others about the new revelation. The Báb's first eighteen followers were called the "Letters of the Living", and were charged with spreading the movement.
After his revelation then, Mirza Ali Muhammed soon assumed the title of the Báb. Within a few years the movement spread all over Iran, causing controversy.
Uprisings, massacres and conferences
The history of the Bábís, though covering a comparatively short period, is so full of incident and the particulars now available are so numerous, that the following account purports to be only the briefest sketch. The Báb himself was in captivity first at Shiraz, then at Maku, and lastly at Chihriq , during the greater part of the six years (May 1844 until July 1850) of his brief career, but an active propaganda was carried on by his disciples, which resulted in several serious revolts against the government, especially after the death of Mohammad Shah Qajar in September 1848. Of these risings the first (December 1848–July 1849) took place in Mázandarán, at the ruined shrine of Shaykh Tabarsi, near Badasht , where the Bábís, led by Mullâ Muhammad `Ali of Bârfurfish and Mullá Husayn of Bushruyih (two of the "Letters of the Living"), defied the shah's troops for seven months before they were finally subdued and put to death.
The revolt at the fortress of 'Ali Mardan Khan in Zanjan in the north-west of Persia, headed by Mullâ Muhammad `Ali Zanjáni, also lasted seven or eight months (May 1850–December 1850), while a serious but less protracted struggle was waged against the government at Nayriz in Fars by Aga Sayyid Yahyá of Nayriz. All of these resulted in Bábí massacres; the number of these is a matter of disagreement between Bahá'í authors, who give a figure of 20,000, and academic critics including Denis MacEoin, who say it is too large by a whole order of magnitude. Supporters paint their struggle as basically defensive in nature; Shi'i writers on the other hand point to this period as proof of the subversive nature of Bábísm (and thus of Bahá'í Faith after it).
Also in 1848, a group of Bábí leaders met at Badasht to deliberate the relationship of their movement to Islam. A radical wing led by Qurratu'l-'Ayn, also called Táhirih, argued that Bábísm superseded the provisions of Islam; the more conservative (and ultimately unsuccessful) wing, led by Muhammad Quddus, argued the opposite.
After the martyrdom of the Báb
The revolts in Zanjan and Nayriz were in progress when in 1850 the Báb, with one of his devoted disciples, was brought from his prison at Chihriq to Tabriz and publicly shot in front of the citadel. The body, after being exposed for some days, was recovered by the Bábís and conveyed to a shrine near Tehran, whence it was ultimately removed to Haifa, where it is now enshrined.
For the next two years comparatively little was heard of the Bábís, but on August 15 1852 three of them, acting on their own initiative, attempted to assassinate Nasser-al-Din Shah as he was returning from the chase to his palace at Niyávarfin. The attempt failed, but was the cause of a fresh persecution, and on the August 31 1852 some thirty Bábís, including the beautiful and talented poetess Qurratu'l-Ayn, were put to death in Tehran with atrocious cruelty. Another of the victims of that day was Hâjji Mirza Jân of Kashan, the author of the oldest history of the movement from the Bábí point of view. Only one complete manuscript of his invaluable work (obtained by Count Gobineau in Persia) exists in any public library: the Bibliothèque nationale at Paris. The so-called "New History" (of which an English translation was published at Cambridge in 1893 by E. G. Browne) is based on Mirza Jani's work, but many important passages which did not accord with later Bábi doctrine or policy have been suppressed or modified, while some additions have been made.
Background to Babi Radicalism and Opposition by Clergy and State
A brief chronology provides a background to the opposition of the Shi'a clergy and the Qajar authorities:
1844: Ali Muhammad declares his mission to Mulla Husayn; he claims to be the Bab of the Imam; the first disciples (Letters of the Living) start missionary work throughout Persia.
1845: Messianic expectations are high at the start of AH 1261 (10 January); crowds gather in Karbala in response to the Bab's call; the Bab's emissary in Karbala is convicted and the Bab cancels his visit to the city; he is later arrested in Shiraz.
1846: The Bab escapes to Isfahan where he is protected by its sympathetic governor.
1847: The Bab is offered an audience with Muhammad Shah in Teheran but at the last moment was transferred to Maku fortress as a prisoner.
1848: The Bab in Maku informs his disciples of his higher claims; he is transferred to Chihriq fortress; he announced his higher claims (as Mahdi) to followers at Badasht and later publicly at the Tabriz tribunal of ulama, presided over by crown prince Nasiri'd-Din, who was to become Shah three months later at the age of seventeen; the Bab was publicly ridiculed and bastinadoed; Mullah Husayn and companions set off to free the Bab, have a conflict with a mob outside Barfurush and fortify the nearby shrine of Shaykh Tabarsi;
1849: Babis at Tabarsi are massacred after a long conflict with government troops.
1850: Fighting and massacre of Babis in Nayriz; conflict in Zanjan; the Bab is executed in Tabriz.
1851: Babi fighters massacred in Zanjan.
1852: Attempted assassination of Nasiri'd-Din Shah followed by a general persecution of Babis; most Babi leaders are killed.
Despite his early arrests, the Bab was hopeful of enlisting the support of Muhammad Shah, but he was opposed by the Shah's chief minister, Hajji Mirza Aqazi. While in captivity at Maku and Chihriq, the Bab continued to write to the Shah, but the letters were increasingly condemnatory.
While the Qayyumu'l-Asma called on Babis to prepare to "conquer the countries and their people for the pure faith of God" and prepare for the "day of slaughter", this jihad was never called. Furthermore, the Bab wrote that he avoided travelling to Karbala in 1845 to prevent conflict and sedition. Nonetheless, missionary activity and challenges of opponents to divine judgement (mubahala) provoked opposition from ulama and their followers. Some Babis expected a final jihad and carried weapons openly.
A turning point for Babis in Persia was the murder of Muhammad Taqi Baraghani in Qazvin. He had earlier instigated the arrest and bastinado of leading Babis in the town. Babis denied involvement in the murder, but the incident led to Babis being labelled as violent opponents of the ulama and heightened clerical opposition to the movement.
Despite the opposition of the ulama, the civil authorities were initially indifferent and did little to hinder the expansion of the Babi cause. But the situation was transformed when the Bab announced at his 1848 Tabriz trial that he was the Mahdi. The claim to Mahdihood challenged the entire religious. social and political order: only the Mahdi has the right to independent authority and no secular government has legitimacy without his permission. The Bab's higher claims to be the Imam Mahdi, the promised Qa'im (He who will arise), the inaugurator of the Resurrection, and the abrogator of Islamic holy law had the effect of radicalizing the Babi movement and greatly increased Babi fervour. The Bab's higher claims therefore changed Babism from a sect within Shi'a Islam into a revolutionary movement that implicitly challenged the authority of both the state and the ulama. Both government and clergy henceforth jointly opposed Babism.
The Báb was succeeded on his death by Mirza Yahya of Nur (at that time in his early 20s), who escaped to Baghdad, and, under the title of Subh-i Azal (the Dawn of Eternity), became the pontiff of the sect. He lived, however, in great seclusion, leaving the direction of affairs almost entirely in the hands of his elder half brother, Bahá'u'lláh.
Mírzá Husayn-'Alí, entitled Bahá'u'lláh ("the Glory of God")', who thus gradually became the most conspicuous and most influential member of the Bábís, though in the Kitáb-i-Íqán, one of the most important polemical works of the Bábísm, and now the Bahá'ís, composed in 1858-1859, he still implicitly recognized the supremacy of Subh-i Azal. In 1863, however, Bahá'u'lláh declared himself to be man yuzhirullah ("He Whom God Shall Make Manifest") – a messianic figure within Bábí tradition of whose advent the works of the Báb are filled – and called on all the Bábís to recognize his claim. Most of those living in exile within the Ottoman Empire accepted the claims of Bahá'u'lláh, and accordingly they became known as Bahá'ís. The Bahá'í Faith, which see itself as a separate and independent religion from the Bábi movement, and founded by Bahá'u'lláh, however recognizes the station of the Báb as a messenger of God, equal to that of Bahá'u'lláh; Bahá'ís see the Bábí movement as a part of their own sacred history.
While the majority responded to Bahá'u'lláh's claim, Subh-i Azal and some of his faithful adherents refused. After that date the Bábís divided into two – the Azalis and the Bahá'ís – of which the former steadily lost and the latter gained ground, so that in 1908 there were probably from half a million to a million of the latter, and at most only a hundred or two of the former. In 1863 the Bábís were, at the instance of the Persian government, removed from Baghdad to Constantinople, whence they were shortly afterwards transferred to Adrianople. In 1868 Bahá'u'lláh and his followers were exiled to Acre in Syria (now Acca, Israel), and Subh-i Azal with his few adherents to Famagusta in Cyprus.
Subh-i Azal died in Famagusta, Cyprus in 1912, and his followers are usually called Azalis or Bayanis and their populations are likely to be quite low. Beginning in 2002, a new web presence of Bayanis was begun, but their connection to the original community is unclear.
Bahá'u'lláh died at Acre on May 16, 1892. In Bahá'u'lláh's Will and Testament he appointed his son `Abdu'l-Bahá, (the servant of Bahá), his successor, but another of his four sons, Mírzá Muhammad 'Alí , put forward a rival claim. This caused a fresh and bitter schism, but 'Abdu'l-Bahá steadily gained ground, and there could be little doubt as to his eventual success. See the Bahá'í Faith for further history.
The Báb's writings include the Qayyum al-Asma ("Reality of the Names", a commentary on the Qur'anic Sura of Joseph), and the Arabic and Persian Bayan ("Exposition", which the Bábis saw as superseding the Qur'an). The latter has been translated into French; only portions exist in English.
Much academic research has focused on the Bábís including Abbas Amanat, Resurrection and Renewal; Denis MacEion, Rituals in the Bábí and Bahá'í Religions; (t.k.).
- Peter Smith, the Babi and Baha'i Religions - from messianic Shi'ism to a world religion; Cambridge University Press (1987); ISBN 0-521-30128-9
- Abbas Amanat, Resurrection and Renewal - the Making of the Babi Movement in Iran 1844-1850; Cornell University Press (1989); ISBN 0-8014-2098-9
- Bayani community online http://www.bayanic.com
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