In the latter part of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries there occurred a relatively widespread mass movement of Persian Jews to the Bahai community; the latter predominantly consisted of Shiʿite converts. Estimates by outside observers of the number of Iran’s converts to the new religion are sketchy, ranging from an astonishing two million in the 1880s, including “many Jews” (Neumark, p. 80), to the more plausible estimate in the mid-1930s of “thousands and perhaps ten thousand of [converted] Jews” including “around a quarter of the Jews of Hamadan” (est. 8,000) and 700 Jews in Tehran (Brower, 1937-38, pp. 22, 24, 31). These estimates are fairly consistent with those of Lord Curzon in the 1880s (prior to the early 20th-century wave of Jewish conversions) of 50, 100, and 150 converted households in Kashan, Hamadan, and Tehran respectively (Curzon, p. 496). His account of Golpāyagān, where as many as 75 percent of the Jewish population had “formally joined the Bahai movement and their numbers have since increased considerably,” along with similar reports of group conversions in Khorasan’s Torbat, indicate conversions of large segments of certain Jewish communities starting as early as the Babi period, though some, including most of the Golpāyagān converts, evidently reverted to Judaism (Brower, 1944-46; Fischel, 1934, p. 54).
Such estimates should be seen in light of the fluidity of Jewish-Bahai identity in this period, ranging from sympathizers to propagators. Such significant numbers are particularly noteworthy for Persian Jewry, who, despite their close historical ties with other sectarian movements, had never converted in large numbers to religions other than Islam. Conversion of a disadvantaged minority to the even more persecuted Bahai faith, rather than to the dominant religion of the majority, presents an important anomaly. The exact circumstances of many early conversions to the Bahai faith cannot be determined with certainty. Even though most conversions of Jews to Bahaism took place during the ministry of ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ (1892-1922), their earliest encounter with the faith goes back to the early years of the Babi movement.
The earliest known Jewish Babi convert in Tehran, according to Bahai sources, was a physician whose name Ḥakim Masiḥ (= Christ; Arabic form of the common Jewish name Mashiaḥ = Messiah) and whose interest in Islamic concerns may suggest an earlier conversion to Christianity or Islam. As a Babi sympathizer in 1848, he attended debates that the notable woman Babi leader, Ṭāhereh Qorrat-al-ʿAyn, conducted with Shiʿite scholars in Baghdad. In 1861 he openly confessed his Babi beliefs after he came into contact with the Babi and later Bahai leader Mollā Ṣādeq Moqaddas while attending to sick Babi prisoners in Tehran. His conversion demonstrates an early universalistic view, at least on the part of some Babi leaders, of the Babi mission going beyond Islamic confines (Balyuzi, p. 18; Rafʿati, pp. 395-98).
In 1847 Ṭāhereh stayed briefly at the house of the Jewish physician Elezar (Lālehzār; d. 1881) in Hamadan, before her stay was ended by concerns of possible trouble, including anti-Jewish riots over the danger of a rebellious Muslim woman associating with a Jewish family (Ḥāfeẓi, p. 36; Ešrāq-Ḵāvari, 2004, pp. 28-30; Amanat, 1989, p. 315). Although Elezar never openly confessed his belief, his Babi sympathy or secret belief later found expression in at least one of his associates, the prominent physician Ḥakim Āqājān (d. 1881?; Ḥāfeẓi, p. 21). Āqājān was reportedly first attracted to Babis and Bahais in 1877 when he was invited to treat a patient in the prominent Babi scholar and merchant Narāqi household. He was impressed by the family’s expression of respect toward himself, their disregard for laws of impurity, their willingness to share food with him, and their lenient attitude even after he reportedly gave the patient erroneous medication. Āqājān’s further inquiry into the family’s beliefs eventually led to his acceptance of the Babi/Bahai message. The new message soon spread through Āqājān’s family networks to reach the influential physician and later Bahai community leader Ḥakim Raḥamim, later known as Raḥim Khan Ḥāfeẓ-al-Ṣeḥḥa (1844-1942). Within two years (1877-79), with the help of itinerate Bahai propagators (sing. moballeḡ), some 50 Jews joined the nascent community of Hamadan, now a center of early Jewish Bahai conversion (Ḥāfeẓi).
Yet much of the initial success of Bahaism in Hamadan seems to have been based on the earlier work of the Christian mission; many of the new converts were attracted to the Bahai community while maintaining their Christian ties. Becoming a Bahai allowed them to come to terms with an Islamic identity without having to repudiate their family and community ties.
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