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Bahá'í Faith

by Juan Cole

published in Encyclopaedia Iranica, Volume 3
New York: Columbia University, 1989
History. Bahaism as a religion had as its background two earlier and much different movements in nineteenth-century Shiʿite Shaikhism (following Shaikh Aḥmad Aḥsāʾī) and Babism. Shaikhism centered on theosophical doctrines and believed that a perfect Shiʿite existed on earth at all times, and many Shaikhis (as well as other Shiʿites) expected the return of the hidden Twelfth Imam in 1260/1844. Shaikhis in particular joined the messianic Babi movement of the 1840s, which shook Iran as Sayyed ʿAlī-Moḥammad Šīrāzī proclaimed himself, first the bāb or “gate” of the Twelfth Imam, and then the return of the imam himself. As the new creed spread, violence broke out between Shiʿites and Babis, ending when Qajar government troops intervened to besiege and massacre the Babis. The government executed the Bāb in 1850. Some Babi leaders in Tehran plotted, in revenge, the death of Nāṣer-al-Dīn Shah, but the assassination failed and large numbers of suspected Babis were tortured and killed.

An Iranian notable and important Babi figure, Mīrzā Ḥosayn-ʿAlī Nūrī, “Bahāʾ-Allāh” was imprisoned but found innocent after the attempted assassination. He was exiled to Iraq, in the Ottoman empire, then to Istanbul and Edirne in Turkey. He was accompanied by his younger half-brother, Mīrzā Yaḥyā Ṣobḥ-e Azal, whom the Bāb appears to have pointed to in 1850 as leader of the Babi community. The Bāb had also spoken of the advent of another messianic figure, “he whom God shall make manifest (man yoẓheroh Allāh),” and in 1863 in the garden of Necip Paşa in Baghdad Bahāʾ-Allāh informed a handful of close followers that he was the messianic figure promised by the Bāb (Ostād Moḥammad-ʿAlī Salmānī, Ḵāṭerāt, ms., International Bahāʾi Archives, Haifa; Eng tr. M. Gail, My Memories of Bahāδu’llāh, Los Angeles, 1982, p. 22). While in Edirne (1863-68) Bahāʾ-Allāh wrote letters to Babi followers in Iran openly proclaiming himself to be the spiritual “return” (rajʿa) of the Bāb. During the Edirne period relations between Bahāʾ-Allāh and Ṣobḥ-e Azal became increasingly strained, and in 1867 Bahāʾ-Allāh sent his younger brother a missive demanding his obedience to the new revelation, which Azal rejected. Babis in Iran were then forced to choose between Bahāʾ-Allāh and Azal. The vast majority accepted the assertions in Bahāʾ-Allāh’s writings that he was a manifestation of God (maẓhar-e elāhī) bearing a new revelation, rejecting Azal’s form of Babism. Although the Bahais date the inception of their religion from Bahāʾ-Allāh’s 1863 private declaration in Baghdad, the Bahai community only gradually came into being in the late 1860s, and most Babis did not become Bahais in earnest until after 1867, though many may have been partisans of Bahāʾ-Allāh earlier (Bahāʾ-Allāh, “Sūrat damm,” Āṯār-e qalam-e aʿlā IV, Tehran, 125 Badīʿ/1968, pp. 1-15; “Lawḥ-e Naṣīr,” Majmūʿa-ye maṭbūʿa-ye alwāḥ, Cairo, 1920, pp. 166-202; Salmānī, Ḵāṭerāt, tr. pp. 42-48, 93-105).

In 1868 Bahāʾ-Allāh and some close followers were exiled to ʿAkkā, in Palestine, by the Ottomans, and Azal and his partisans were sent to Cyprus. The vast majority of Babis lived in Iran, and Bahāʾ-Allāh found ways to continue to send epistles and tablets (sing. lawḥ) to them. In 1873, while under house arrest in the old city of ʿAkkā, Bahāʾ-Allāh, in response to requests by the Bahai community in Iran for a new book of laws to accompany his new revelation, set down the Aqdas (al-Ketāb al-aqdas, Ketāb-e aqdas “Most holy Book”), meant to supersede the Koran and the Bāb’s book of laws, the Bayān.

One of the problems facing the Babis in the 1850s and 1860s was that of religious authority. With the execution of the Bāb and the massacre of many prominent Babi disciples, the original leadership of the religion was mown down. Regional sects developed within Babism, with local claimants to high station competing for allegiance. Azal, who followed a policy of keeping himself incognito, provided little effective leadership. Bahāʾ-Allāh won out partially because he solved these problems of legitimacy and organization. The Aqdas prescribes that in every locality a Bahai steering committee (termed bayt al-ʿadl “house of justice”) should be set up to administer the affairs of the religion. In addition, Bahāʾ-Allāh provided active leadership through his letters from exile, and through his close companions (called moballeḡīn “teachers”) who were sent back to Iran to implement his policies (al-Ketāb al-aqdas, Bombay, n.d., pp. 30-31; ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ, Taḏkerat al-wafāʾ, Haifa, 1924; Kāẓem Samandarī, Tārīḵ-eSamandar wa molḥaqāt, Tehran, 131 Badīʿ/1974; Mīrzā Ḥaydar-ʿAlī Eṣfahānī, Baḥjat al-ṣodūr, Bombay, 1913).

After 1873 the Bahais in Iran began to organize themselves in accordance with the Aqdas and gradually began to follow its laws. For example, because of that book’s emphasis on the education of children of both sexes, informal Bahai schools were set up. The Christian missionary Bruce noted in 1874 in Isfahan the rapid increase in Bahais (letter of Reverend Bruce, 19 November 1874, in M. Momen, ed., The Bábí and Bahá’í Religions, 1844-1944: Some Contemporary Western Accounts, Oxford, 1981, p. 244). J. D. Rees of the Indian civil service found in 1885 evidence of substantial Bahai followings among the merchant class in Qazvīn, and among townsmen in Hamadān, Ābāda, and Mašhad (J. Rees, “The Bab and Babism,” Nineteenth Century 40, 1896, pp. 56-66, quoted in Momen, Bābí and Bahá’í Religions, p. 245). The government and the Shiʿite ʿolamāʾ carried out periodic persecution of the new religion, as in Isfahan in 1874 and 1880, in Tehran in 1882-83, and Yazd in 1891 (see missionary and consular reports in Momen, Bábí and Bahá’í Religions, pp. 251-305). Bahaism spread in this period, not only among Iranian Shiʿites but also among the Zoroastrians in Yazd and Jews in Kāšān and Hamadān (see the letters to the Zoroastrians by Mīrzā Abu’l-Fażl Golpāyegānī in his Rasāʾel wa raqāʾem, ed. R. Mehrābḵānī, Tehran, 1978, pp. 463-511). Internationally, Bahaism spread from the late 1860s to 1892 in Iraq, Turkey, Ottoman Syria, Egypt, Sudan, the Caucasus, Turkish Central Asia, India, and Burma.

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