Browne first developed an intense curiosity about Babism when he read Gobineau’s account in the summer of 1886, and one of his pursuits during his subsequent year-long sojourn in Iran (1887-88) was making contact with the Babis and gaining access to their manuscripts. Browne deeply admired the heroism of the Babis in the revolutionary period 1848-52, found a “sublime beauty” even in the Bab’s more ungrammatical writings, and was impressed by Gobineau’s account of the Babi leader Ṣobḥ-e Azal. He was thus rather taken aback to discover, upon making contact with “Babis” in Iran, that almost all had become Bahais, followers of Azal’s older half-brother Bahāʾ-Allāh, who had replaced the Bayān
with the Aqdas
(Browne, 1889, pp. 486-87, 901, 933; idem, 1893, repr. 1926, pp. 328-29).
In true nineteenth-century style, Browne was after the pristine origins of the movement, considering later developments to be departures. He thus considered the Azalīs more reliable than the Bahais in putting him in touch with the Babi past and regretted the rivalry between the two groups. He seems early on to have taken the Azalī side in the struggle; when Iranian Bahais reproached him for inclining to Azal, he did not deny it and blamed Bahai violence toward Azalīs (1893, repr. 1926, pp. 578-79). In his 1889 papers for the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society he set out for the first time in English a detailed account of the evolution of Babism and the rise of Bahaism after 1850. He entered into frequent correspondence with Azal and his followers and in the spring of 1890 voyaged to Cyprus, where he spent two weeks with Azal, then to ʿAkkā (Acre), where he spent a week with the Bahais.
Among Browne’s Azalī contacts in Istanbul was Shaikh Aḥmad Rūḥī, who told him late in 1890 about a manuscript entitled Hašt behešt, a polemic against Bahaism. Although this book had just been written by Rūḥī himself and Āqā Khan Kermānī, both sons-in-law of Azal, Rūḥī misrepresented it as the work of Āqā Javād Karbalāʾī, an eyewitness to events of early Babism. Karbalāʾī had become a Bahai, but Rūḥī told Browne that he had been an Azalī. Browne was at first excited by Hašt behešt, wrongly considering it a primary source for early Babi history and a vindication of Azal’s right to head Babism after the Bab’s death (1892, pp. 680-84, reporting Rūḥī’s correspondence); he much later came to realize the true authorship of Hašt behešt (idem, 1932, p. 76, para. 1; for more recent scholarship on this work and on Kermānī, see Bayat, pp. 160-61).
At ʿAkkā Browne had acquired a copy of the account of Babi and Bahai history by Bahāʾ-Allāh’s son ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ, which he published with a translation and extensive annotation, as A Traveller’s Narrative in 1891. Browne spoke highly of Bahāʾ-Allāh and ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ in his introduction to this work, but the notes (II, pp. 356-73), written later, show a willingness to believe charges that Bahāʾ-Allāh had ordered some of his enemies assassinated; this later attitude was much influenced by the anti-Bahai calumnies of Hašt-behešt.
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